COVID-19 has magnified many of America’s already acute economic disparities. According to research by the Pew Research Center, those without any college education have fared particularly poorly in the economic contraction spawned by COVID. For instance, Pew reported that college graduates saw employment levels decrease 6 percent in the first months of the COVID downturn. By comparison, the decline in employment among high school graduates and those lacking a high school diploma was far steeper, at 17 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
Past economic recessions have taught us that workers lacking postsecondary education have been more likely to suffer job losses during a downturn and take longer to recover. The financial implications of not obtaining a college degree have also been apparent long before the pandemic hit. According to the Social Security Administration, men with a bachelor’s degree earn about $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates.
As the US and Massachusetts chart a course to rebuild the post-COVID economy, there is a unique opportunity to dramatically expand economic opportunities with high standards of living for those without a college education while also meaningfully addressing the existential crisis of climate change.
It’s helpful to look at this opportunity through the lens of supply and demand. For example, thanks to continuously improving economics and supportive public policies, Massachusetts is a top market for solar installations in the nation. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Massachusetts ranked eighth in the country for solar installations in the second quarter of 2020.
At the same time, the demand for workers in solar, battery storage, energy efficiency, and heating ventilation and cooling (HVAC) – all of which directly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change – far outstrip the availability of skilled employees.
We see firsthand the impact this shortage of skilled workers has on our work in Massachusetts. Despite the pandemic, for instance, there is a need for many more trained electricians to complete clean energy and energy efficiency projects, a shortage that will become more acute with the coming wave of COVID-required HVAC and air quality upgrades. The result is that solar and battery storage projects are being delayed due to lack of skilled labor.
Demand for skilled electrical workers to support clean energy, energy efficiency, and green infrastructure is particularly evident in cities and towns across Massachusetts. In the most recent Massachusetts Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Action Grant Awards in September, over 80 communities applied for funding, but there was only funding for 41 cities and towns. Many other commercial projects are being delayed by a lack of skilled electrical professionals to manage the process of receiving approval to connect solar and storage projects to the electrical grid as well as updating the aging electrical grid itself.
So, while the prices for renewable energy equipment continue to decline, the limited availability of labor pushes costs up and slows down projects that are beneficial to the economy and the environment.
It’s important to understand that these in-demand jobs don’t require a college degree and provide excellent pay, benefits, and career security. The average median pay for an electrician in the US is $56,000. In Massachusetts, a typical commercial electrician brings home over $100,000 in salary as well as health and other benefits. Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the demand for electricians will rise 8 percent a year.
Even before the recent wave of COVID-driven job losses, there were ample numbers of young people lacking college degrees who were in need of promising employment opportunities. While 70 percent of US high school students enter a four-year college program after high school, only 41 percent graduate after four years and 60 percent obtain a degree within six years after enrolling. This leaves a large portion of young people in need of employment opportunities that provide adequate compensation to raise a family, buy a house, and achieve financial security.
Smart public policy is key to closing the gap between the large number of young people in need of high-quality careers and the intense demand for talented workers to fuel a clean energy boom. Aggressive funding of job training can build the pipeline of skilled workers needed. Historically, Massachusetts has devoted between $ 5 and $10 million in annual new funding for vocational training at high schools, community colleges, and grants to organizations that provide job training. A more appropriate funding level would be $100 million in annual new funding to help train electricians, electrical project managers, and other skilled trades to work in the state’s construction, clean energy, energy efficiency, communications, engineering, and advanced manufacturing industries.
This additional funding can go to support the work of respected groups like the Joint Apprentice Training Center in Springfield, whose mission is to bring more young people with a mechanical aptitude and necessary drive to become skilled electricians. The training center’s five-year training and apprenticeship program is designed to prepare younger workers to enter the trade. Local vocational high schools, including Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, would also be important recipients of funding for increased progamming to educate and train the current and future electrical workforce.
Additional funding to support these vocational schools and to continue advanced apprenticeship programs not only builds the workforce needed to address climate change, it also strengthens the state’s overall human capital – a critical factor that companies in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy sectors consider when choosing where to locate new plants, labs, and offices.
A popular saying among politicians is to “never let a crisis go to waste.” In the pandemic and climate change challenges, Massachusetts and the world face two daunting crises. The opportunity to emerge from COVID, tackle climate change, and create meaningful careers for young people – of all races and backgrounds – is real. Leadership, at the state and local level, as well as vocal advocacy from job training organizations, vocational schools, and business groups will be required to create the groundswell of support necessary to move the needle on Massachusetts’ legislative efforts to increase vocational training and to connect workers to the clean energy projects and businesses that need them most.
Michael Quinn is the chairman and a trustee of the Springfield Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee and president of Universal Electric. John H. Tourtelotte, is the managing director of Rivermoor Energy. Chris Warren is an energy policy writer.