To Build a Pipeline of Workers for the Economy of the Future, High School Students Need CTE Training in Green Jobs

This commentary originally appeared in The 74.

The movement to green the American economy is gaining momentum. At the federal level, as well as in places like Illinois, Maine, and New York City, lawmakers have passed legislation designed to reduce carbon emissions while creating green jobs in diverse industries such as transportation, construction, environmental management, and agriculture. These have all shown growth in recent years and are predicted to continue to do so

This green revolution will require an army of well-trained workers—yet federal investments in job training have focused mostly on adults. To build a healthy pipeline of skilled labor, policymakers should apply lessons from a robust body of evidence about successful career and technical education programs for high school students to create pathways for careers in the green economy. 

More than 12 million high school students are enrolled in CTE; high-quality CTE programs have been shown to boost high school graduation, college enrollment, and earnings. With curricula organized around specific career themes, they offer internships and other work-based learning experiences and provide opportunities to earn industry-recognized credentials and college credits while still in high school. CTE programs also appear to work particularly well for students who have lagged in educational attainment, including young men and students with disabilities

CTE programs have been successful across fields of study, suggesting that similar models focused on green jobs and careers may have similar effects. In fact, promising green CTE programs are cropping up all over the country. In Malta, New York, the Clean Technologies Early College High School, a P-TECH model school, offers learning experiences in clean energy, business, and solar installation; opportunities to earn certificates in photovoltaics; and a pathway to associate’s degrees in electrical construction and maintenance. The New York Harbor School on Governors Island in New York City provides programs in fields related to marine health, including aquaculture and marine systems technology, and offers instruction in professional diving and vessel operation, as well as paid internships. 

In Kansas, Green Tech Academy at Olathe West High School is a four-year program with pathways in both renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. Ocean Springs High School in Mississippi trains students in aquaculture through a program that allows them to continue their studies at a local community college, and the Bright Solar Futures program at Frankford High School in Philadelphia provides training and industry-recognized certificates in solar energy installation and energy conservation, preparing students for entry-level solar jobs. 

As innovative as these programs are, however, they tend to be one-off efforts. To prepare students for the future green economy, a more coordinated effort will be necessary to align labor market needs with CTE programs nationwide. 

The Aspen Institute’s recent K-12 Climate Action Plan recommends developing new CTE opportunities that prepare students for jobs in the clean energy economy and creating curricula that supports knowledge of environmental sustainability across all career pathways. This could be done in a coordinated way by leveraging funds through the federal Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which provides states with more than $1 billion annually to support CTE education. For example, electricians and HVAC technicians now need to understand new technology used for renewably powered homes and buildings. Other fields that are staples of current CTE programming are being transformed by efforts to address climate change, including buildings and architecture, transportation and logistics, and agriculture and natural resources. 

Perkins already requires school districts to conduct needs assessments of local labor markets. States could use that funding to support schools to make explicit connections with green employers to learn what skills students need and create opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and work-based learning experiences. 

Other funding streams should be developed to support green CTE, such as money to purchase training equipment like solar panels, wind turbine parts, and greenhouses. Funding for research to understand how schools and districts can best align their educational offerings with rapidly accelerating changes in the labor market should also be a policy priority.

Developing a talent pipeline of students ready to enter the workforce as the clean energy transition accelerates would ensure a robust, skilled pool of workers prepared to meet the challenge of reducing carbon emissions at the scale and speed that science demands. Doing so would be a win for students, employers, and the environment.  

Rachel Rosen is a senior associate and co-director of MDRC’s Center for Effective Career and Technical Education