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A Massachusetts clean energy agency has awarded $1.6 million in grants to eight offshore wind workforce training programs, each of which targets a specific obstacle that might prevent people of color and low-income people from pursuing jobs in the burgeoning industry.
“We wanted to up the game a little bit,” said Bruce Carlisle, managing director for offshore wind at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, the organization that awarded the grants. “We made a conscious effort in 2021 that we were going to focus exclusively on this issue.”
The 800-megawatt Vineyard Wind project, which is slated to become the country’s first utility-scale offshore wind installation, received its last major federal approval in May, effectively jumpstarting an industry that is expected to be a major employer and economic driver in years to come.
The offshore wind industry could produce as many as 83,000 jobs in the United States and pump an annual $25 billion into the economy by 2030, according to an analysis by the American Wind Energy Association. With some of the country’s most wind-rich waters located off the New England coast, the region stands to reap significant financial benefits.
In the face of this opportunity, many community and environmental groups have been pushing to ensure that people of color, low-income communities, and other marginalized groups have an equal chance to participate in the benefits of a promising new sector. The existing energy system has overburdened communities of color, who often face more pollution and higher rates of respiratory illness, said Susannah Hatch, clean energy coalition director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts. A diverse, inclusive workforce could help redress some of this damage, she said.
“As we are looking to a decarbonized world, we have to figure out how this new system can be equitable and not repeat the sins of the past,” Hatch said.
In designing this call for grants, the clean energy center emphasized that it wanted proposals that did more than simply create a training course. It wanted programs that would identify and grapple with specific obstacles to successfully entering the offshore wind industry.
Industry awareness and training
Some of the grant recipients are focused on boosting awareness of the offshore wind industry and the jobs it will create. Massachusetts nonprofit Browning the Green Space, for example, is partnering with Scottish clean energy consultancy Xodus to develop education and engagement programs aimed at demystifying an industry that is so new that few people know much about how it operates.
Other Massachusetts industries have left people of color behind as they grew. Kerry Bowie, founder of Browning the Green Space, wants to make sure the pattern doesn’t repeat itself with offshore wind.
“How’s that working out for us in the biotech space, in banking, in finance?” he said. “We’re not saying everyone in the space needs to be Black, Brown or women. But can we just get our fair share?”
Building Pathways, an established pre-apprenticeship program in Boston, will use its $250,000 grant to run an offshore wind-focused version of its 200-hour training program that introduces participants to the trades, unions, and the apprenticeship system. Recruitment will be focused on people of color, women, and residents of environmental justice communities.
The goal is to familiarize students with the full range of trades, how the offshore wind industry will create opportunities in these fields, and how to pursue an apprenticeship in one of these areas.
“People may be familiar with the kinds of trades they see in their homes like plumbers and electricians, but there are so many other trades,” said Executive Director Mary Vogel. “It’s just making sure they have a clear understanding of all the opportunities that are out there.”
Transportation and financial assistance
Other grantees are tackling financial and logistical barriers. For many people in the communities prioritized by the grants, job training can take away valuable time when they could be working and earning a much-needed income. For others, simply securing transportation to a training site can be a major challenge.
The Asian American Civic Association has been awarded $250,000 to support a partnership with Bristol Community College’s Offshore Wind Power Technology Certificate program. The grant will fund a shuttle bus to transport trainees to training sites and allow the association to provide trainees with a stipend during their studies.
“You can provide technical training, but if you don’t address everything else — their transportation, their social services — all the little things can lead to failure,” said Ed Hsieh, chief operating officer at the Asian American Civic Association.
The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology is taking a similar approach, using grant money to support students in the renewable energy engineering technology program. The median household income for students at the school is $24,000, so financial support is essential, said Kristen Hurley, the institute’s director of strategic partnerships.
The courses will prepare students to work at a technician level in the offshore wind or solar industries. The clean energy center award will allow the school to offer stipends as well as bonuses for students who complete the program with at least a B average. The school will also connect incoming renewable energy students with mentors in the engineering school at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, to help them explore their options for continuing on to a bachelor’s degree.
“Almost all of our students work when they’re at Benjamin Franklin and making school a priority can be a challenge,” Hurley said. Stipends could mean “maybe they don’t have to work as many hours, or maybe they can make college a top priority in their lives.”
One grant recipient, Self Reliance of Bourne, is taking a particularly long view, using the money to implement a curriculum introducing the offshore wind industry to kids from kindergarten through high school. The program includes hands-on opportunities to design and test turbine blades, teacher training, and field trips to places including a blade testing facility and the campus of Massachusetts Maritime Academy, which offers coursework in renewable energy systems engineering.
The program will focus on working with students in cities that are struggling economically as well as those located in tribal communities in southeastern Massachusetts.
“We need to develop the pipeline, a multigenerational pipeline,” Executive Director Megan Amsler said. “That’s definitely our objective — to get kids excited about this stuff.”
Together, the programs chosen for grants have the potential to make a noticeable difference in the diversity and equity of the emerging offshore wind workforce, said Carlisle of the clean energy center.
“These eight awards,” he said, “they’re not only going to make a difference, they’re going to start to move the needle.”