Shortage of expertise in green jobs

Energy Expert Peter Garforth reports that the shortage of energy expertise is strategic, as well as tactical.

By Peter Garforth

The recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocates billions to energy efficiency, distribution and supply, emphasizing the green jobs this can produce. The President’s subsequent address to Congress made clear that energy and climate change are strategic focuses, again emphasizing employment. But, how well is the labor market responding to the challenge for green-collar workers?

Remember that energy represents a $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion annual hit to the U.S. economy, with a potential for major productivity improvement. Focusing on energy makes economic sense at many levels. With or without government policy, industry is looking for ways to cut costs, energy included, to survive the current economy. The Toledo Blade ran a rather poignant story about how Chrysler and GM have removed every second fluorescent tube and disconnected the clocks to save electricity. This last-minute reaction is far from the in-depth rethinking around energy and climate effects that most companies need.

Paradoxically, in a time of rising unemployment, companies looking for qualified energy personnel often come up short. A recently published survey of energy professionals, “2009 Green Jobs: Survey of the Energy Industry,” by the Association of Energy Engineers (www.aeeecenter.org) came to interesting conclusions: 40% of energy professionals plan to retire within 10 years, and more than 70% saw a chronic shortage of experts in energy efficiency and in clean and renewable energy.

Not surprising, the same percentage saw urgent need for education and training to “address jobs shortages that are impairing growth in green industries.” The report then lists areas with a shortage of expertise, including efficient buildings and construction renewables, electric power, smart grid, energy-efficient vehicles and biofuels.

This gap is being recognized. Organizations from for-profit training companies through industry groups, community colleges, major universities and research centers are starting courses of one kind or another. That’s all well and good, and a trend that’s clearly positive, but perhaps it should be explored a little more deeply.

I’ve often discussed how breakthrough energy productivity only comes through integrating energy efficiency, new technology, energy distribution and changed energy sourcing. This view of the factory and even the surrounding city as an interconnected energy system, where managerial, technical and economic decisions anywhere in the energy chain produce significant leverage for good or ill, fundamentally changes the skills needed.

In the future, energy managers will touch a company’s every significant decision, from choice of production technology through product design to siting of factories. Their work will involve strategically integrating operations not only with smart electric grids, but also municipal heating and cooling networks, and renewable energy supply chains. Trade-offs between investing in efficiency, technology or new energy sources will be risk-based decisions. Costs will be viewed not only in historical contexts, but also on disruptive future scenarios. Risks from climate regulation must be managed. The timing and probability of success of disruptive energy technologies must be assessed and decisions made on whether and when to implement them.

This system-oriented view will affect the design and execution of most energy solutions. I suspect we’re not training enough of our future green-collar workers this way. In my industrial and municipal energy planning work, it’s difficult to find practitioners trained to see the whole picture, to understand the interrelationships and to develop risk-adjusted alternatives. Few can take the effects of their recommendations back to the primary energy sources and evaluate supply or climate risks.

This gap isn’t surprising. Energy productivity as a continuous strategic priority is a relatively new phenomenon for most businesses. Traditional energy-efficiency projects focused on low-hanging fruit based on current energy costs or on getting a better price from the utility. This favors a non-integrated approach, which, in turn, has shaped the market for products, services and available expertise. As political and economic pressure drive demand, it’s inevitable that we’ll find the limits of the pool of educators with a more systemic and risk-management view.

So how should industry react? Like so many other tough questions, the basic answer is simple. A company’s senior management should clearly and honestly list energy- and climate-change-related concerns about their business, develop a management game plan to address them, and define the additional skills and resources needed to address them. As these needs are communicated and sought by human resources teams and other recruiters, it won’t take the training market long to adapt and provide appropriately trained green-collar professionals.

But once again, if senior management fails in their obligations, the trainers, colleges and universities will respond with what they think the market wants and not what it needs.

The last thing we need in energy is more of the same old history. How we fill the green-collar employment gap will be key to building new realities.

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. E-mail him at garforthp@cs.com.

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