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  • Writer's pictureCorey L. Wilson

More Clean Energy Jobs Are Coming: But Don’t Call Them Green!

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

In June 2020, the California Workforce Development Board (CWDB) submitted a report titled, “Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030,” to the Legislature pursuant to Assembly Bill 398 (E. Garcia, Chapter 135, Statutes of 2017).

Prepared by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, the report offers the State of California a vision for integrating economic and workforce development into major climate policies and programs in order to help achieve California’s major climate goals: achieving 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and transitioning to a carbon neutral economy by 2045.

Carol Zabin, a UC Berkeley labor economist and the report’s lead author, says it’s more accurate to talk about “greening” existing jobs rather than creating entirely new “green jobs.”

The difference, she said, is that many of the workers who will build and install the clean energy technologies of the future—such as solar panels, electric cars and efficient lighting—are already in the energy workforce. They might need new training, but the fundamental skill sets are the same. An electrician is an electrician.“

I give the example of an auto mechanic on an electric vehicle,” Zabin said. “Yes, they’re different. They’re different in terms of the powertrain and all that. But the wheels and the bumper and the windshield wiper systems, those are pretty much the same.”

None of this is to say rooftop solar panels and electric cars aren’t valuable to the people who buy them, or to society as a whole. But Zabin thinks government should craft climate policies that encourage employers in those industries and others to offer high-paying jobs with benefits, make those jobs accessible to non-white workers, and sponsor apprenticeship programs that allow for career advancement.

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic, California Had 537,000 Clean Energy Workers

One way or another, these types of jobs are coming into existence. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, California had 537,000 clean energy workers, according to an analysis by the advocacy group Environmental Entrepreneurs. And that number is certain to rise as the state targets 100% climate-friendly electricity and a carbon-neutral economy by mid-century.

So, what does the UC Berkeley report recommend? Lots of stuff! It’s 636 pages long. Here are a few high-level ideas:

• Public funds should come with strings attached. Companies getting government- or ratepayer-funded contracts to build clean energy infrastructure, such as electric vehicle chargers or public transit systems, could be required to hire from disadvantaged communities, offer state-certified apprenticeship programs and verify their compliance with labor laws.

• Government should partner with industry to fund training programs. The goal should be “comprehensive training that prepares workers for careers, rather than niche programs that train on one particular ‘green’ skill or ‘green’ technology that may become outdated as technology advances,” the report says.

• Make sure teachers have the clean energy knowledge they need. Instructors at community colleges and apprenticeship programs must be prepared to educate a new generation of workers. State government can help by supporting curriculum upgrades and offering professional development opportunities.

If there’s one place the report is relatively sparse on details, it’s the section on ensuring a “just transition” for fossil fuel workers. The main recommendation is further study, with a focus on diversifying regional economies that depend on single industries.

Diversifying Regional Economies That Depend On Single Industries

The future of the natural gas workforce may be an especially tough knot for California to untie, in part because Southern California Gas Co., the nation’s largest gas utility, is aggressively fighting efforts to phase out gas for heating and cooking.

The state’s Public Utilities Commission is evaluating strategies for managing the transition away from gas, including implications for utility workers. So is the think tank Gridworks, through a study process that has included So Cal Gas and other gas utilities.

The group released a report last year recommending steps such as buyout programs for older workers, ratepayer-funded retraining programs, wage protections for people assigned to new responsibilities, and internal placement programs for workers at dual-fuel utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, where the electric side of the business might grow as the gas side shrinks.

Gridworks is planning to outline more detailed ideas in the coming months,“

We’re trying to create a situation where people who now have good jobs can be supportive of a transition, because they will still have good jobs,” said Marc Joseph, an attorney who represents the Coalition of California Utility Employees.

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Article content courtesy of Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, September 3, 2020 and edited by Corey Lee Wilson.

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