The Skilled Workforce the Clean Energy Economy Will Need

Its growth will provide more and more high-demand, high-wage jobs. Our education system is key to training that workforce of the future, with a particular focus on marginalized communities.

A man works to install solar panels.
David Kidd/Governing
President Biden has made it clear that clean energy is the central pillar to U.S. economic recovery. His plan addresses the climate crisis while simultaneously creating jobs for American workers. The president is not alone: States, utility companies, the transportation sector and other businesses are committed to the future of clean energy. As our country advances to clean energy on a large scale, it needs a skilled workforce to meet these goals in both the public and private sectors.

During my time as governor of Colorado, the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors grew, creating around 90,000 jobs in my state alone. Colorado could not have taken advantage of this growth without a skilled workforce. Vocational education in high school and programs at community colleges were essential to filling those jobs.

So as the country works toward these clean energy goals, we must support our K-12 and postsecondary education system with those goals in mind. We need students who are well educated and trained in skills for these high-demand, well-paying jobs. The development of a clean energy economy and workforce will require public and private partnerships working to ensure that all students and adults have access to high-quality learning opportunities and skills that will take them well into this 21st century.

Not only will clean energy bring jobs, but it has the potential to build wealth among American workers and communities. Our public and private sectors need to focus on marginalized communities and work to build the education system for those communities’ youth and adults. Right now, there are barriers in access to career and technical education programs and training that prevent these students from getting high-wage, high-demand jobs like those in clean energy. Some live too far away from the programs, or they are directed toward lower-paying career pathways. These barriers must be removed. We must use this opportunity to ensure that traditionally marginalized communities have access to the jobs of tomorrow.

There are successful examples already happening. Craig, Colo., a rural municipality that was built on the coal industry, is working to transition educational opportunities to clean energy through the local community college, helping students, adults and residents of the region transition to the new economy. Clean energy pathway programs can also be found in early college high schools , where students working toward a diploma also take college-level classes for credit. More of these programs are needed, especially in our low-income communities and communities of color, and should include both youth and adults.

Clean energy goals can be a reality sooner than you may think. Consumption of renewable energy, primarily from solar, wind and hydropower, has already surpassed coal in the United States. Around 3 million Americans work in clean energy industries, a number that will grow dramatically as the nation transitions away from fossil fuels. In the automobile industry, companies are setting goals to end the manufacturing of vehicles powered by internal combustion engines — Volvo by 2030 and General Motors by 2035. We need to prepare a skilled workforce now, and well into the future, to help these sectors and companies meet their targets. Taking the time to plan our efforts now by leveraging federal funding and working together in public and private partnerships will ensure that education systems across the country are ready to meet the demand that is coming.

We could see the decline of the coal industry unfolding in the last decade, yet there was no will to act, which has put people and communities at risk. We cannot let this continue. We see the future of clean energy, and it is time to plan so we can educate and train youth and adults across all communities for the high-demand, high-wage employment that will power that future.

Bill Ritter served as governor of Colorado from 2007 to 2011. He is the founder and director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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