The April 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes some dire predictions about the impacts of climate change, should the planet continue to warm due to human activity that emits greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Importantly, however, the report also emphasizes that many of the technologies needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change already exist, if the world scales their usage at a rapid pace.
While the scope of a transition toward renewable energy, and away from fossil fuels, as well as other sustainable economic practices is daunting, the United States has recently begun to obtain policy momentum in the push to decouple economic activity from GHG emissions. A suite of recent federal laws, as well as state and local laws and private investments, are set to address the interlocking needs of developing, building, and deploying clean energy infrastructure and transportation.
Demand for everything from solar panels, electric vehicles, and heat pumps, to many other clean energy systems and products has skyrocketed in recent years. This demand will likely continue as prices for many of these goods continue to fall, in many cases below the cost of fossil fuel–powered technologies. This shift will make the transition to clean technologies an economically viable pathway.
However, accompanying this rise in demand is a growing shortage of workers trained in the building, installation, operation, and maintenance of the new technologies. Currently, more than half of the United States’ energy employers report difficulties in hiring qualified workers who are trained in building, deploying, and maintaining new energy-efficient and clean technologies. This worker shortage puts at risk the United States’ ambitions of cutting GHG emissions substantially this decade.
At the same time, the sheer scope of the need to rapidly expand the number of good climate jobs with family-sustaining wages and advancement opportunities, renders an unprecedented opportunity to provide redress for communities that have historically lacked adequate access to the levers of economic opportunity. In many cases, these same communities have been hardest hit by environmental degradation and the impacts of climate change. Moreover, members of marginalized communities, such as Indigenous and tribal communities that have both struggled economically and have long histories of relating to and managing natural resources in sustainable ways, may already have the necessary knowledge, skills, and habits of mind in relation to issues like conservation and sustainable resource management. These skills and habits are necessary for leadership in roles facilitating climate stability. In addition, many of these jobs will come from the federal expansion of apprenticeship programs as well as jobs in the skilled trades that do not always require a four-year degree. The urgency of the energy transition, combined with the disruptions to the educational and career trajectories of young people created by the pandemic, have made it more important than ever to both develop new, and scale existing, evidence-based pathways and models of career and technical education (CTE) that can meet the needs of a changing labor market. Doing so could be a way to equitably support young people to achieve success in the climate workforce, where myriad jobs address the needs of society’s response to a changing climate.
The Carl D. Perkins Act is the existing federal legislation that provides funding to states for CTE. It requires states to use funds to support equity in CTE for students from a variety of underserved communities, and to create programs that are linked to local labor markets. While Perkins Act funding only represents a portion of funding for CTE, with the bulk coming from individual states, it does provide a framework upon which to equitably build programs in fields where there is current and growing demand. In addition, there is also a significant body of evidence about the effectiveness of CTE for supporting positive educational and economic outcomes for students. Using existing programming, funding, and evidence to adapt educational systems to create a pipeline of talent to fill climate jobs could be a win-win for students, the economy, and the planet.
This paper presents (1) an overview of the scope of jobs that are affected by the transition to a clean energy and climate-resilient economy; (2) a review of the current state of policies aimed at expanding the climate workforce; (3) a review of the evidence about CTE; and (4) a discussion of barriers and potential solutions to improving the education and training pipeline to support an economic transition that is also just and equitable.