An expanded clean energy economy is necessary to achieve the goals outlined in the Colorado GHG Pollution Reduction Roadmap. This transition will require a well-trained, clean energy workforce. Clean energy jobs accounted for half of all new jobs in the U.S. in 2018 and 2019. Even during the pandemic, there was still a 3 percent growth in clean energy manufacturing jobs as automakers shifted increasingly to cleaner and more efficient cars, trucks and buses (Clean Jobs America 2021 | E2). More investment equals more growth. The 2021 American Jobs Plan within the Build Back Better agenda calls for investing over $200 billion in clean energy-related industries (Biden’s American Jobs Plan Is Also a Climate Plan | NRDC). If this is passed, there will be an expansion of clean energy job opportunities across many sectors and geographies for skilled workers and entrepreneurs. Workforce training must reflect this economic growth.
Colorado has started down the path to prepare for the clean energy transition. There are a number of bills that were passed by the Colorado legislature in 2021 and signed into law by the Governor that will turn money and initiative towards the development of the industry’s workforce.
Figure 1. Colorado 2021 Legislation Related to Clean Energy Workforce Development
HB19–1314 Just Transition from Coal-Based Electrical Energy Economy
HB21–1290 Additional Funding for Just Transition
HB21–1149 Energy Sector Career Pathway in Higher Education
Better funding for existing programs and the passing of new policies will create new training opportunities, improve equity and meet the workforce requirements of a better, cleaner economy. The CDLE recently received a State Apprenticeship Expansion, Equity, and Innovation (SAEEI) Grant. A portion of the grant targets the clean energy sector by creating a position for a clean energy apprenticeship consultant and expansion of related apprenticeships. The grant also reduces barriers of entry by giving financial assistance for tuition and living expenses for students in these programs.
What is a clean energy job and how accessible is the training in the state today? There are five main sectors in the clean economy: energy efficiency, renewable energy, grid & storage, clean fuels and clean vehicles (Clean Jobs America 2021 | E2). Across community colleges, state universities, technical schools, and public organizations, there is an uneven distribution of training programs as well as other barriers to entry.
Here is a link to an overview of clean energy job training in Colorado as of July, 2021.
It is difficult to find clean energy job training on the state’s online job resources. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE) identifies apprenticeship and career pathway opportunities but it doesn’t highlight all clean energy sectors. The Eligible Training Program List by the CDLE expects programs to register themselves under an energy pathway on this site. This is the source for the Colorado Workforce Development Council’s MyColoradoJourney platform, which provides guidance to job training and apprenticeships. However, programs that haven’t registered do not show up on the site’s list. The state needs to do a better job of identifying and labeling which careers belong to a clean energy job pathway.
For example, the manufacturing company Danfoss, located in Longmont, CO, specializes in producing high-efficiency electric motors, generators, and related products for electric trucks and vehicles. As it continues to expand its operations, it plans to hire advanced manufacturing technicians. While Front Range Community College does mention clean energy as a focus in their manufacturing and energy technology program, no other advanced manufacturing technician programs in the state mention this connection. People generally do not understand the extent of training applicable to clean energy jobs because those career pathways are not yet defined in the program descriptions.
The diversity of the clean energy industry is particularly important when it comes to developing a resilient and innovative workforce. The industry should reflect the demographic of the nation and provide resources and opportunities to underrepresented communities experiencing disparities in job security and accessibility. Improving the representation of workers in clean energy provides great benefits: ethnic, racial and gender-diverse companies are more likely to outperform non-diverse companies, leading to a 33% bump in profit (Diversity Wins: How Inclusion Matters | McKinsey & Co).
There is ongoing effort to improve diversity and inclusion in training programs. The Community College of Aurora (CCA) is currently one of three schools in Colorado to receive funding from a newly passed policy. This will help expand diversity in the workforce because CCA is a Hispanic-serving institution and has potential to engage a diverse group of workers through offering clean energy training and education. In addition, the school partners with an online institution to provide a 12-month Wind Technician Career Prep course through its website platform. This allows students across the state to enroll and improves accessibility to clean energy training.
There are gaps in available programs across the state, which is largely a result of a lack of demand in a region. Sasha Nelson, Director of Community Education at Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) in Craig, CO, in a recent interview said, “Developing a workforce skill or academic program at community colleges is driven by employer business demand.” Her college has a non-credit program that provides infrastructure to meet the workforce needs of local businesses, called the Business Customized Training program. The discussion is mostly centered on the upcoming closure of the Xcel Energy’s Hayden Unit 1 and Unit 2 coal power plant by 2028 in the county, and has community members asking what will fill its place in providing jobs in the area.
This is a common dilemma that multiple Colorado communities are facing, as the state plans to close all but one Colorado coal power plant by 2030. According to the Just Transition Fund, coal employment dropped 13 percent in 2017 with 162 industrial coal jobs lost. “Program development takes significant time and resources,” Nelson says. “Leveraging partnerships and connections is efficient, effective and necessary to deliver what we need when we need it.” This program development paradigm needs to shift. Instead of responding to industry demand for a training program, institutions need to plan for new programs based on predicted increase in clean energy job growth.
High school-level job training for the clean energy industry is slim but there are important takeaways from the strongest examples in the state. CareerConnect in the Denver Public Schools is a youth apprenticeship program that provides students with an experience to either aid in their pursuit for higher education or launch them into a middle-class job out of high school. The program does not mention clean energy as a focus but does include advanced manufacturing as an option for students. These apprenticeships can potentially connect our youth to expanding clean energy career pathways at a young age if there were a clearer understanding of clean energy jobs. Solar Energy International, a private institution for solar energy training, offers two options for high school students: a summer program that invites students to their solar training camp or an avenue where teachers can apply to teach the licensed course on solar energy at their respective schools. Without remote accessibility and relying on teacher ambition to apply, they are limiting their reach into clean energy career pathways offered at the high school level. Developing training programs for high school students should aim to respond to these challenges.
Expanding the clean economy is essential to meet the goals Colorado has set to curb GHG emissions and mitigate climate disruption. Assessing the current availability, identifying strengths and weaknesses of these programs, and understanding where improvements can be made is crucial in order to expand the clean energy economy and make it more diverse and inclusive. Colorado has made great progress to date and shows promise to continue along this path with the new job training legislation, state agency leadership, and collaboration with the various educational institutions in the state.
Gabriela Rucker is a student at Emory University, Class of 2023, and a 2021 E2 Clean Energy Intern.