• The clean energy economy has a diversity problem. Let’s change that as we build back
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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

The clean energy economy has a diversity problem. Let’s change that as we build back

The infrastructure package being debated in Washington should include a proposed bill to provide job training for workers from underrepresented communities.
By Paula Glover

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Paula Glover is president of the Alliance to Save Energy. This contributed content represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

At first glance, the outlook for the clean energy economy is far more positive today than it was one year ago. Back then, I was one of many with my head in my hands, watching years of job growth be erased in a matter of days by Covid-19. In no energy sector was this as pronounced as the one I represent, energy efficiency, which had lost 360,000 jobs by June 2020.

Now we are surrounded by signs that all seem to say that full economic recovery is close at hand. The U.S. as a whole added 850,000 jobs last month, wages are on the rise, and consumer confidence is at its highest point since the pandemic began. Moreover, our leaders in Washington, D.C. seem to be on the cusp of passing a historic investment in clean energy that could fuel the creation of millions of more jobs.

That’s at first glance.

Being Black in America, I’ve learned to read the signs beneath the signs. As is true with so many economic indicators in the U.S., how you’ve weathered the past year has been impacted by the color of your skin. The unemployment rate for Black Americans is currently close to double what it is for white Americans, and last year Black-owned businesses shut down at twice the rate of white-owned businesses.

In the energy sector, which has long been less diverse than the U.S. workforce as a whole, these pandemic-related disparities are making an already severe problem even worse. In energy efficiency, for example, just 8% of the workforce is Black, compared to the 12% national workforce average.

As Congress readies legislation that could shape our economy for years to come, it’s important to remember these numbers. Modernizing our infrastructure and combating climate change will require lots of workers — workers building out electric vehicle charging infrastructure, retrofitting homes to make them energy-efficient, upgrading our grid and so much more. And these aren’t low-wage jobs; they’re careers. In energy efficiency, the average worker makes 28% more than the national median wage, unionization rates are nearly double the national average, and workers are more likely to receive health and retirement benefits compared to those in similar occupations. How are we going to ensure these opportunities are available to the people who need them most?

We’ve seen an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion at companies in the past year, including examining biases in hiring and recruitment practices, which is a step in the right direction. But this alone will not achieve workforce diversity.

Why? Internal DEI processes won’t undo the barriers that have prevented minority populations — particularly Black Americans — from attaining the skills needed to participate in the clean energy workforce. I’m thinking of the folks who aren’t even applying for these jobs because they’ve never been trained with the required skills and for whom access to the industry has been limited. Also not helping the problem is the fact that Black Americans historically have had an adverse relationship to the energy system; for example, Black households face an energy burden 43% higher than white households.

Overcoming these barriers is going to require targeted policy that helps to educate and train people from diverse backgrounds to participate in the clean energy economy. That’s why I support the Blue Collar to Green Collar Jobs Development Act, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois), chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Energy Subcommittee. This legislation would direct the Department of Energy to establish a comprehensive, nationwide energy-related jobs program. Notably, the bill would prioritize efforts to train individuals from communities that historically have not been well represented in the energy workforce.

That means partnering with historically Black colleges and universities to connect students with internships in the field. Department of Energy grants could be used to create training opportunities at organizations that provide energy-efficiency or renewable-energy services. Critically, the bill would provide grants to pay the eligible wages or stipends for trainees, meaning that people transitioning into the field would not need to forgo a paycheck. Funding would also be used for outreach to encourage individuals from underrepresented communities to enter into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

This job development emphasis is long overdue — and because demand for clean-energy workers is set to soar as we move toward the Biden administration’s goal of slashing emissions by 50% by 2030, we can’t wait any longer to take action. Energy careers were a means for people to achieve economic mobility in the 20th century, and now we have a chance to ensure that 21st-century opportunities uplift the communities that were not included the last time around.

As negotiations in Washington over a big infrastructure bill continue, our leaders should take note: The Blue Collar to Green Collar Jobs Development Act must be part of the package.

(Lead image credit: Gilles Mingasson/​Getty Images)

Paula Glover is president of the Alliance to Save Energy. She has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years, including as president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy.