Green Power’s Challenge: Willing Workers, Few Training Programs

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As the renewable energy sector scrambles to sort out its share of the economic stimulus package, many voices within the wind and solar sector are pointing out a problem: The booming industry faces a startling lack of skilled professionals.

The stimulus bill’s injection of about $50 billion for clean energy projects is certain to create tens of thousands of green jobs. But much of the clean energy field is still new and developing, and poor federal funding in education has left many colleges without the resources to develop innovative technical curricula. Only a handful of specialized programs currently exist on college campuses in fewer than two dozen states.

The question college administrators and industry officials are asking now is: Who will train the next generation for the new green economy?

A new study by the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) predicts a serious shortage of green energy skills due to the lack of training programs and an aging base of energy professionals. The group, whose members work in renewable energy or efficiency, says one in four of its members will retire in the next 10 years.

Right now, those professionals are installing more than 20 new turbines in the United States every day. With one maintenance engineer needed for every nine turbines, industry growth is definitely outpacing technical staff available. In the next four years, conservative estimates predict that wind farms from Oregon to Montana alone will need 500 to 600 technicians.

Demand is so high for new workers in the renewable energy field that students at existing training programs increasingly leave school for industry jobs well before they graduate.

The Wind Technician Training Program at Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles, Oregon, exemplifies the struggle that colleges are facing in trying to close the talent gap and provide 21st-century skills to their students. Their program currently offers both a one-year certificate and a two-year associate degree, but it can only enroll up to 36 students annually.

The college hopes to expand the program’s capacity to 72 students this spring, but inadequate state funding for crucial lab space has delayed its plans. Wind turbine maker Vestas Wind Systems, whose North American headquarters is in Oregon, even donated a 12,000-pound turbine hub to the college, but it sits in storage while the lab remains unfinished.

Gary Hackett, manager of a Portland General Electric wind farm that expects to add about 140 turbines in the next two years, told The Oregonian he may have to look out of state – or ever overseas –  for workers.

We look to the community college for the main source of our folks. We’re going to run out of people and we do need the training for the skilled work force desperately.

Like Oregon, Texas is also trying to drive its renewable energy sector forward despite the financial crisis and a shrunken state budget. Home to the T. Boone Pickens Plan, a renewable energy sector that grew its workforce 132% between 2000-2007, and even a Green Collar Vets group, Texas has been a veritable powerhouse for wind.

Texas’ tax incentives for wind and technical training grants for students could be a model for other states. Business-friendly policies have turned the traditional stomping grounds of oil giants into an attractive investment center for the renewable energy industry.

Earlier this week, the state held a legislative conference, "Texas Energy Future: Green Jobs and Clean Power," which was sponsored by a diverse coalition of interests, including the University of Texas’ Clean Energy Incubator, lobbying groups for utilities, renewable industry business leaders, lawmakers and environmentalists.

Texas students are also doing their part by hosting a “Re-Energize Texas” summit in Austin next month. About 500 students will convene with the goal of “framing the global warming and energy debate as an opportunity to strengthen our economy and reestablish our state and our nation as global leaders in technology and energy production.” The students plan to march from Huston-Tillotson University in East Austin to the Capitol Building, where they will lobby the State Legislature for green jobs legislation.

University lobbyists and trade groups are also doing everything they can to get federal and state dollars directed at expanding green training programs. Andra Cornelius with Workforce Florida, the state’s workforce investment board, recently called on Congress to support legislation that will help build a "talent pipeline" of new young workers with necessary skills and training for the energy industry. Florida is the leading state in the solar industry, but again, private sector workforce demand is outstripping the education system of the sunshine state.

The economic stimulus plan provides $3 billion for the National Science Foundation, aimed at basic research in fundamental science and engineering. It also sets aside $1.6 billion for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which funds research in areas such as climate science, biofuels, high-energy physics, nuclear physics and fusion energy sciences. But money for direct Green Jobs Training came in at only $500 million, housed in the Department of Labor.

Holmes Hummel, a climate policy expert, wondered about the placement of the green jobs money:

Weatherization and energy efficiency has always been implemented primarily by the Department of Energy – why they placed it in the Department of Labor is strange. They’re not the folks who normally deal with this stuff.

Regardless, groups are sorting are working their way through the red tape to secure federal dollars and put green collar Americans to work.

It’s unclear whether the lack of training programs will slow renewable energy growth. Hopefully, the U.S. education policies of the past eight years won’t mean too little, too late for the clean energy economy that President Obama envisions.