The Race to Decarbonize America Needs More Workers

April 11, 2023

THE UNITED STATES doesn’t lack the technology to head off climate catastrophe—it lacks enough trained workers to install it fast enough. 

The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last summer, allocates $370 billion toward energy security and climate action. According to a recent analysis by the nonprofit Energy Futures Initiative, the legislation will create 1.5 million jobs by the year 2030. Over 100,000 will be in manufacturing, with 60,000 coming from battery production alone. Nearly 600,000 jobs would be added in the construction sector—building out electrical transmission lines, for instance, and the facilities to manufacture those batteries—while the electric utility sector would gain 190,000…

So the jobs are there, but qualified workers to fill them are harder to find. “The green transition is going to generate upwards of 25 million new jobs [in the US] in the next 15 years—this is just going to be a tremendous transformation of the US workforce,” says Mark Paul, an environmental economist at Rutgers University. “You can’t outsource the installation of heat pumps or solar panels on somebody’s roof to China or Bangladesh.” 

But, Paul adds, “do we have enough electricians, enough solar installers, enough wind installers, enough home retrofitters to transition immediately? Absolutely not.”

Green economy companies will have to do their part to attract and train workers, especially those who can’t afford vocational school. “When Henry Ford created the Model T and the modern assembly line, it’s not like we had a bunch of well-trained auto manufacturing workers,” says Paul. “Ford trained those workers. And likewise, I think that we should often expect companies to engage in far more training than they have in recent decades.”

That’ll be especially true in underserved communities where there’s a chance to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change, like the urban heat island effect, which could be ameliorated with more gardens and cooling surfaces, and air pollution, which could be abated with a switch to electric vehicles. “We need to target those communities that have been historically marginalized and have not benefited,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, co-chair of Climate Justice Alliance and the executive director of UPROSE, which advocates for sustainability in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. “How do we use this moment right now to prepare workers to take advantage of these opportunities?”

Paul, the environmental economist, points to a sweeping rebuild of American infrastructure but knows it’s not going to be easy. “We need to retrofit every home in America, and that means that we need to train heat pump installers from coast to coast,” says Paul. “That means that we need to retrain a lot of our construction workers to better understand green building practices to build tighter homes that require less energy in the first place. I don’t think we can—or should—underestimate the uphill climb we have in front of us.”

Wired April 11, 2023

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