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Developing the Energy Efficiency Workforce of the Future

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published August 27, 2018 On Energy Central.

Maria Garcia Alvarez was working in construction when the Great Recession hit, and she lost her job. So she enrolled in a program at Laney College in Oakland, California, where she learned how to install and maintain energy-efficient HVAC systems. “I felt this program actually would provide a recession-proof job,” says Garcia. Her intuition proved correct: after graduating, Garcia joined the Energy Management team at UC Berkeley, and was later promoted to Asset Manager.

Garcia is not alone. Many are finding “recession-proof” jobs in the fast-growing field of energy efficiency. The sector now employs 2.2 million Americans, mostly in small businesses that construct and install energy-efficient systems. Along with providing good jobs, the sector is helping to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment, which is essential to fighting climate change.

But there’s a challenge: the field is growing so fast that it’s hard to find enough qualified workers to fill the growing number of jobs. More than 80 percent of employers in the energy efficiency sector report at least some difficulty finding qualified job applicants, and over 40 percent say it is very difficult. However, a recent report by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) shows that government, higher education, nonprofits and industry can all work together to meet this challenge and create the energy efficiency workforce of the future.

The program Garcia attended, at the Build Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) Center, is an excellent example of this collaborative approach. The BEST Center supports publicly-funded two- and four-year colleges with programs in energy-efficient building systems. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, this national collaborative trains students with up-to-date research and data, matching industry needs to cutting-edge curriculums. It also establishes open communications between industry and educational institutions, so that the next generation of employees reflect industry expertise, needs, and innovation.

Not all successful partnerships begin at the federal level. Local governments across the United States are enacting policies to drive energy savings, and the success of these activities is inextricably linked to a strong, capable energy efficiency workforce. To ensure that trained workers are available to capitalize on efficiency investments, local governments can set workforce development goals and coordinate training programs.

Local governments can also create a self-sustaining cycle of demand and supply within the energy-efficiency industry. The first step is to enforce or even promote existing energy efficiency initiatives. This could be as simple as encouraging residents and business owners to take advantage of energy efficiency tax incentives, local grant programs or energy savings programs offered through the local utility. Outreach to community organizations can help inform local residents who might not know about these money-saving opportunities.

And, importantly, local governments can institute equity-focused workforce development programs and targets to recruit new workers from underserved communities. According to the Department of Energy, the energy efficiency sector is less diverse than the American workforce as a whole. Women make up only 24% of the energy efficiency workforce; African Americans account for 8%, and Latinos represent 15%--all less than their representation in the U.S. population. Moreover, 17% of energy efficiency workers are over the age of 55. As they retire, it is imperative to fill those jobs with workers who represent the increasingly diverse face of our nation.

Initiatives like the Emerald Cities E-Contractors Academy show how it can be done. The Academy provides training for small minority-, women-, or veteran-owned energy-efficiency retrofitting contractors in California and Ohio. This workforce development program connects these companies to apprentice pipelines within their states’ union networks. The Academy expands opportunity for employees at these companies, and their prosperity has positive economic effects for local businesses and the community at large.

The demand for skilled workers with experience and training in the energy-efficiency industry will only grow. Collaborative efforts among governments, community organizations, and vocational training programs can meet this future need.

Collaborations of this nature require investments in time and resources, but the long-term benefits are worth it. Those benefits include savings for homeowners, opportunities for underserved workers, revitalized local economies and a cooler planet. By building the energy-efficiency workforce, we can build a better future for all.

Urban Resilience