aerial of solar panels on rooftop
Photograph:  David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The Race to Decarbonize America Needs More Workers

The US already has all the technology needed to rapidly bring down carbon emissions. The trouble is finding enough people to install it all.

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. 

The solar industry could grow from 230,000 to 400,000 employees this decade and will have to exceed 900,000 by 2035 to reach the Biden administration’s goal of 100 percent clean electricity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association

Yet we don’t have enough electricians to electrify post-fossil-fuel energy systems, like photovoltaic panels and electric heat pumps—and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the demand for those electricians will grow 7 percent by 2031. The bureau just released a report finding that the number of job openings in construction jumped by 129,000 in February, although job openings in general decreased by 632,000. The number of people applying to construction jobs online has remained flat after falling 40 percent between 2019 and 2020.

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.”

The challenge—and opportunity—of the green revolution is that clean energy can be generated almost everywhere. The fossil fuel system is more centralized: Oil, gas, and coal are extracted in one spot, processed somewhere else, and then shipped to customers in a third location. Solar panels, by contrast, can be deployed on homes but also on canals and reservoirs, in airports, over parking lots, and virtually anywhere there’s free space. This flexibility means you also need skilled workers everywhere.

The good news is that a lot of that labor demand can be covered by retraining workers. A construction worker can learn to do energy-efficient retrofits, for instance, or an oil rig worker can switch to building support pads for solar panels. “As much as we do need new workers, there’s a lot of workers who work in something similar,” says Michael Timberlake, communications director at the nonprofit Environmental Entrepreneurs. “This is a large opportunity to train the next generation of workers, but a lot of these workers do have those skills.”

Part of the current labor issue stems from the patchwork training system in the US, which includes apprenticeships run by trade unions, employer-sponsored programs, and vocational schools where students must pay tuition out of pocket. “We have this system in America where you decide what you want to do, you go learn all about it in school, and then you go try the job and realize if you like it or not after you’ve spent $100,000,” says Todd Vachon, who studies labor and employment relations at Rutgers University. “We’re short on the educational infrastructure, but we’re also short on the people pursuing the trades.” 

On the other hand, a country like Germany has a national training program in which the education system and the labor market are in close communication. That better supports workers and makes the country more adaptable to economic shifts, like the transition to green technologies, Vachon says. “Germany always is the go-to example,” he says, “both in terms of how they’ve dealt with transitions, but also their education infrastructure is just more practical than ours.”

The clean energy industry is indeed taking steps to streamline recruiting and training workers. “Yes, there are some challenges in terms of open positions among our members today,” says Tom Vinson, vice president for regulatory affairs at American Clean Power, which represents companies in the sector. “Recruiting and education is part of the challenge facing the industry, and something that we’re trying to ramp up.”

By his group’s estimates, the IRA could create 550,000 new clean-energy jobs by 2030, more than doubling the current workforce. To help fill hundreds of thousands of job openings, the group is developing minimum training standards for, say, wind and solar technicians. It’s also focusing on “microcredentials,” which would verify that workers have the skills they’ve learned in school and help transfer people from one industry to another. “So if you were a fossil power plant worker,” says Vinson, “maybe you don’t have to do the same level of training to convert to operate a wind or a solar facility.”

Because the IRA offers tax credits to incentivize homeowners to install green technologies, it’s essentially a federal subsidy that flows to trade workers. “The home improvement provision of the Inflation Reduction Act literally gives $2,500 for upgrading your home’s electric system. That is a direct subsidy for electricians,” says Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School. “You get another up to $840 for your induction stove, you get up to $1,600 to insulate your home. All these things add up. And it is public subsidies.”

Ultimately, it should empower blue-collar workers, who tend to be left behind by economic transformations—the offshoring of manufacturing, for example. “Usually progress means fewer people on the factory floor, more people behind computers,” says Wagner. “In this case, the balance might actually go in the opposite direction.”

But only if these new green jobs are actually good jobs. If they’re low-paying, that won’t encourage people to move into these fields. US unemployment remains low, at 3.6 percent, so workers can take their labor elsewhere. And although US industries as disparate as rail workersAmazon warehouse employeesApple store staff, and video game quality assurance workers have been unionizing and striking, employers still have a lot of control over wages and working conditions. “Our income inequality has been increasing for decades, and one of the major driving factors of that has been the decline of unionization,” says Vachon. “Workers as a whole have less bargaining power in the economy. Employers have greater power, vis-a-vis their employees, and they’re just keeping more and more of the value that’s created in the labor process.” 

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.”