Bird's eye view of a field of solar panels
Credit: Red Zeppelin / Creative Commons

Members of environmental justice communities have borne the brunt of adverse health effects from carbon-based industries, while enjoying few of the financial rewards. Likewise, individuals within or aging out of the foster care system, formerly incarcerated people, women and people of color have been disproportionately disadvantaged in the clean energy job sector.

To help close that gap, work is underway in Illinois to implement a solar training program established by a 2016 clean energy law.

The Illinois Solar Training Pipeline Program is one of three workforce development programs administered by ComEd to provide opportunities for members of these demographics to obtain entry into the clean energy sector. The other two programs are the Craft Apprenticeship Program and the Multi-Cultural Job Training Program. The three programs are part of the Future Energy Jobs Act. 

Along with promoting renewable energy throughout the state and providing savings on utility bills for consumers, the Solar Training Pipeline Program is designed to create a diverse pool of solar installers, giving them an opportunity to land good-paying jobs created through the Illinois Solar for All Program.

Earlier this year, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership was tapped by ComEd to solicit requests for proposals from program providers to receive workforce development grants totaling $3 million in 2021. Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership will also make final grant recommendations to ComEd, which will disburse the funds and provide actual program implementation through selected grantees.

The proposal submission period closed on June 7, and grant recipients are expected to be announced in mid-July, according to Kit White, senior policy analyst for Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.

Individual grants range from $150,000 to $1 million, to be disbursed over four years. Eligible grant recipients include not-for-profit, governmental and for-profit entities, along with educational institutions. Organizations located in and providing services for environmental justice communities have been given priority. Minority- and women-owned companies were also encouraged to apply.

The program has a goal of providing training for 2,000 individuals — especially formerly incarcerated people and individuals who are within or who have aged out of the foster care system — with a target of 50% of trainees from environmental justice communities, according an email response from Diana Sharpe, vice president of economic and workforce development at ComEd.

Sharpe said that ComEd has also contracted with another organization to help graduates apply for jobs and is helping to organize a job fair. 

Grant recipients are also encouraged to provide training to women and members of BIPOC communities. However, anyone age 18 or older who is eligible to work in the state of Illinois can receive training through the program. Mid-career workers who have been displaced from fossil fuel-based jobs could especially benefit from this training, according to White.

“Anyone who is transitioning out a career in fossil fuels would be great for this program,” White said. “I can’t say that we’re specifically targeting that cohort other than the fact that we are looking for people from environmental justice communities, but absolutely, a career transitioner would be great.” 

Grantees will determine start dates for their respective programs, and are also responsible for conducting whatever outreach is needed to recruit participants, according to an FAQ provided by Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. ComEd has identified the numbers of participants in targeted populations as a success metric, as well as how many people complete training and acquire jobs. 

Along with industry-specific training, programs by grant recipients should include components addressing job readiness and soft skills training. Individuals completing training should ideally be qualified to earn one or more industry-recognized credentials, such as North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners certification, according to a set of slides that accompanied an April 19, 2021, webinar for prospective grant applicants conducted by White and fellow senior policy analyst Jasmine Williams.

Susan Massel, chief of communications and external affairs for Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, is confident that the program will be successful. 

“We are the largest publicly funded workforce system in the United States,” Massel said. “When organizations private or public are looking for a workforce — about 87% of the people that we serve are Black and Brown. We have a large segment that we are doing outreach now, through a federal grant for formerly incarcerated [people]. We are all about meeting people where they are, and lifting them up and bringing them to a career that will sustain their families and their spirits, [maybe] sounding a little bit corny, but that’s the truth.”

Audrey is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts, policy, and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications. Her coverage focuses on environmental justice and equity.