Hailing a clean energy revolution in Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee listened to industry and labor representatives discuss workforce needs in the energy and clean tech sectors that will be required to build a clean energy future in Washington.
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) Director Steven Ashby convened the virtual meeting, held on October 29, with labor leaders and CEOs of utilities and large and small companies who are leading innovation in clean energy and high-tech manufacturing.
Inslee began the conversation by reminding participants that clean energy is a $23 trillion international industrial sector. “It is clearly the largest growth opportunity for people's careers and may be as transformative as when we transitioned from the horsepower to steam.”
Both Ashby and the Governor noted how quickly the clean energy landscape is changing and is creating a greater demand for skilled workers across multiple types of companies and jobs.
Group14 Technologies, headquartered in Woodinville, Washington, is a growing advanced battery materials company that is struggling to hire skilled workers. “We’re going to need about 200 process operators as we scale,” said co-founder and CEO Rick Luebbe. “I don’t know where they’re going to come from.”
Roundtable participants expressed similar concerns but also a cautious optimism about filling current and future job openings in what was described as a high-demand, high-potential field. All participants agreed that the key to a clean energy workforce is education and exposure to the field.
The Governor and several speakers suggested that students need to be exposed to opportunities in clean energy much earlier—at the middle school level—so they can envision themselves in a variety of roles.
“We need more students exposed to trade and labor courses like shop,” said John Hairston, administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). “Those have been cut from many high school and middle school programs, so reintroducing these courses would really help, I think, prepare a new generation for energy careers.”
Retrain to retain
There was general agreement that training and apprenticeship programs are key, whether they are conducted by schools, universities, trade schools, unions, or individual companies. Continuing education programs are also necessary to prepare the workforce to build and operate clean energy infrastructure and to meet the rapid pace of change in the clean energy and clean tech industries.
President and CEO of Avista Corp., a Spokane-based utility, Dennis Vermillion said that necessary skills are changing, especially among their field workers, who always needed strong mechanical skills and now need strong technical skills. “In addition to a screwdriver and wrench, they have to use a computer. Sometimes it's their primary work tool.”
More inclusive pathways into the energy workforce
Washington Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown said the state wants to recover from the pandemic and the economic downturn as equitably as possible. “Equitably means including women, including historically disadvantaged communities. Equitable means every region of the state is part of [the clean energy transition] … so that wherever you are in the state, you can find a pathway into this really exciting and economically rewarding field.”
Several participants emphasized the need to reach out to a diverse candidate pool to supply the workforce necessary for a clean energy future. BPA’s Hairston believes there is opportunity to inspire younger workers that are especially passionate about fighting climate change. “We really need to leverage that motivation and make sure that they know the industry offers, I think, many opportunities for them to be part of that solution.”
Mary Kipp, president and CEO of Puget Sound Energy, said she was drawn to Washington because of the state’s commitment to fighting climate change. She added that a lot of the jobs or skill sets that her organization needs didn't exist 20 years ago. “This is a huge opportunity for resetting equity … the incumbents or the people who had the jobs all these years aren't necessarily going to be the only ones who can have them in the future.” She advocated reaching out intentionally to diverse communities as early as middle school.
Ashby shared the same message about the need to intentionally recruit diverse communities into energy research career pathways. “There's no way we're going to be able to be as innovative as we need to meet these challenges if we don't do a better job increasing the diversity of our communities and our workforces to reflect the people around us and to get them excited,” he said.
Virginia Emery, founder and CEO of Beta Hatch, a clean tech agricultural company, mentioned the importance of teaching entrepreneurship skills to transition clean technologies from the laboratory and convert them into successful businesses. Emery also praised the role that local community colleges play in training the workforce, especially for rural areas.
Public–private partnerships for workforce development
Clear themes emerged from the roundtable participants, summarized in part by President of the Washington State Labor Council Larry Brown, who said that we must invest in workforce training to adopt leading-edge technology if we want to create the productivity gains necessary to compete globally.
“We’ve made great progress, but we’re nowhere near the finish line in terms of aligning supply and demand,” said Dean Allen, CEO of McKinstry, a high-performance buildings firm headquartered in Seattle. “I think it’s going to take a lot of leadership from the state and those of us in the state.”
Mark Riker, executive secretary of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council, says skilled trades organizations are ready to support the clean energy transition. “The apprenticeship programs in Washington State that I'm privileged to represent invest approximately $75 to 100 million of private money annually in state-of-the-art training to provide our employer partners the talent they need to provide the infrastructure in service that our society has come to rely on.”
Dave Whitehead, CEO of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman, says his company has created programs at a few community colleges to focus on these technical skill sets.
"Companies that can afford it should really look out to help support the communities,” he said. “I think we need to encourage that kind of behavior from companies.”
Many of the participants mentioned their participation in Career Connect Washington—a coalition of education, business, labor, and community leaders—which is currently recruiting intermediaries to help build career pathways in the energy sector and other high-need areas.
Roundtable participants included: Steven Ashby, Director, PNNL; Dean Allen, CEO, McKinstry; Larry Brown, President, Washington State Labor Council; Lisa Brown, Director, Washington State Department of Commerce; Tom Deitrich, President and CEO, Itron; Virginia Emery, Founder and CEO, Beta Hatch; John Eschenberg, President and CEO, Washington River Protection Solutions; Jay Inslee, Governor, State of Washington; John Hairston, Administrator and CEO, Bonneville Power Administration; Mary Kipp, President and CEO, Puget Sound Energy; Rick Luebbe, CEO and Co-Founder, Group14 Technologies; Mark Riker, Executive Secretary, Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council; Bob Schuetz, CEO, Energy Northwest; Roger Snyder, Manager, Department of Energy Pacific Northwest Site Office; Dennis Vermillion, President and CEO, Avista Corp.; Dave Whitehead, CEO, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories.
The Department of Energy's website has more information on energy careers and online learning resources. For more information about the roundtable discussion, contact Melanie Roberts, PNNL’s director of state and regional affairs.
Published: November 5, 2021