Training More Clean Energy Workers With Apprenticeships

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The world will not have a clean energy transformation without more workers to install the tremendous amount of urgently needed solar power, wind power, geothermal, energy-efficiency upgrades, and grid enhancements. These individuals will function as a critical component during the essential movement as clean renewables replace fossil fuels. To that end in the United States, recently the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeships selected the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) to develop and manage clean energy Registered Apprenticeships. The IREC will head up the Apprenticeships in Clean Energy Network to expand the American clean energy workforce.

Richard Lawrence, Program Director at IREC and Deborah Williamson, Vice President of the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation America, answered some questions for CleanTechnica.

What is the Apprenticeships in Clean Energy (ACE) Network?

The Apprenticeship in Clean Energy (ACE) Network is a multi-stakeholder partnership led by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) to expand Registered Apprenticeships (RA) in the clean energy industry under a contract with the U.S. Department of Labor. IREC and its partners are coordinating outreach, engagement, and consulting activities to support clean energy employers, educational institutions, workforce agencies, community based-organizations, and other stakeholders to expand RA across the clean energy industry nationally. The project has an overall goal of registering at least 2,500 new Apprentices over the next five years, with a primary focus on the solar and energy efficiency sectors. At least 50% of the apprentices recruited into these career pathways will be from disadvantaged populations including women, People of Color, and veterans.   

How can apprenticeships be used to train individuals to work in the clean energy industry?

Registered Apprenticeships are a powerful tool to nurture and sustain a steady stream of highly qualified and diverse talent ready to drive the transition to a clean energy future. RA programs combine paid on the job learning with related technical instruction that is aligned with industry standards for the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to succeed in a particular occupation. Similar to college degree and certificate programs, Apprenticeships are comprehensive education pathways that prepare individuals for careers in a particular field of study. Apprentices are paid employees who receive mentorship and progressive wage increases as they complete coursework, attain more experience, and demonstrate increased competency. Registered apprenticeship programs have proven benefits to employers including a path to developing a skilled workforce, improved productivity, reduced turnover, customized training, and increased diversity. 

Is there a typical apprenticeship length, and what does a clean energy apprenticeship look like in terms of pay or no pay, benefits or none, full-time or part-time, opportunity for converting to employment, or placement at a different organization, credentials earned, and so forth?

Registered Apprenticeships must be at least one year in length to meet the requirements to be Registered; but, depending on the occupation, may be up to four or five years long. Apprenticeships in the construction trades, like Electrician, Plumber, and Carpenter are typically four years long, and most other programs take at least two years to complete. There are over 1,000 occupations that have been approved for RA, and the Department of Labor has guidelines for each one. Apprentices are employees, and the employer is responsible for providing on the job learning, supervision, and mentorship in a structured, formalized process throughout the entire duration of the Apprenticeship. Related instruction may be provided by the employer, a college, or other education provider. The pay varies based on the occupation and the Apprentices progression though the program. Typically Apprentices will earn 40-60% of what the employer pays a “journeyperson,” or fully qualified person, at the start of the program, and will receive pre-defined wage increases that lead up to the journeyperson wage when they complete the program. Upon the completion of an RA program an individual earns a credential from the Department of Labor demonstrating that they have completed their Apprenticeship in the particular occupation studied. This is similar to a degree in that it demonstrates a comprehensive education in a particular field has been completed. Many RA programs also incorporate other industry-recognized credentials as part of the training.     

Can high school or college students do apprenticeships at the same time they are doing their studies?

Yes! Apprentices can be as young as 16 and may start the program while they are still in high school, but each individual RA program will have its own eligibility criteria, including age. Colleges are often used to provide the related technical instruction, with some programs offering college credit and even degrees for completion of the Apprenticeship. Apprenticeships are paid jobs, with the majority of the learning conducted while on the job under the supervision of a qualified mentor, and individuals are usually expected to work full time during the Apprenticeship.  

How can clean energy apprenticeships spur the economy?

As employees, apprentices conduct useful work while learning a skilled trade or professional occupation. While not required, most employers also pay for the related instruction costs, and some even pay apprentices to attend classes. So, Apprenticeships spur the economy through both providing productive services for customers of the employer as they grow their workforce, and by providing wages to the Apprentices. While Apprentices are paid a lower wage than a fully qualified person is, they are not accumulating debt during their years of education and training, and are instead earning a wage that allows them to be spending money and support the economy.  

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the number of clean energy jobs grew by 3.9% in 2022. That is a full percentage point more than the growth over all U.S. employment during the same time; or, in other words, the clean energy sector grew 35% faster than the rest of the economy. And clean energy jobs increased in every U.S. state. At the end of 2022, four in 10 total energy jobs were in the clean energy industry, with the solar sector alone employing more people than oil, coal, and natural gas combined. The states experiencing the most rapid clean energy job growth are California, West Virginia, and Texas. 

How can they employ people in overlooked communities?

As an earn while you learn model, Apprenticeships offer unparalleled opportunities for people from disadvantaged populations to enter family-sustaining careers in a wide variety of occupations. Apprentices complete high-quality, industry-recognized training while earning a salary, as opposed to other education and training pathways that typically require people to have to pay significant sums of money for classes and commit substantial amounts of unpaid time to completing coursework. The Apprenticeship regulations also ensure that employers are committed to equal opportunity employment in the hiring of apprentices, maintain a safe and harassment-free workplace, and create affirmative action plans to meet diversity goals.

Can mid-career workers who lost their jobs do apprenticeships to do a career change?

Yes! Apprenticeships can provide a pathway into a career for individuals just starting out or for those who are looking to change careers. As with any career change, an individual will need to recognize that they may need to “go back to school” to learn what is needed to be competent in their new role. Doing so through an apprenticeship rather than actually quitting their job and going back to school, means that they will at least be paid some wages while completing their training. Depending on the occupation they are apprenticing in, and the job they are coming from, the apprenticeship wage may be more, less, or about the same as their current position, and will increase as they complete the program. 

Where do interested individuals go to find out more about apprenticeships and what may be available?

Whether a jobseeker, employer, training provider, or other workforce stakeholder, the US Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship.gov website is a great place to learn about Registered Apprenticeships. The site has a wealth of information including an Apprenticeship Job Finder tool. To learn about RA opportunities in their region, the local “One Stop” American Job Centers are where to go to understand the local workforce needs and available training opportunities: CareerOneStop.org. Information about the ACE Network can be found on IRECUSA.org.

 


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