A worker blows insulation into a wall
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Massachusetts needs to grow its energy efficiency workforce by some 35,000 people if it is to make significant progress updating its aging homes by 2030, according to a recent report.

Massachusetts is already a leader in clean energy workforce development, advocates said, but the sector was already struggling to find qualified job candidates before the pandemic upended the labor market. More must be done if the state is to reach its goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050.

“We have to make the financial commitment,” said Pat Stanton, director of policy for E4TheFuture, the Massachusetts-based organization that developed the report. “How do we convince young people that going into the trades is a smart career path? And how do we help that whole sector grow?”

Energy efficiency is the largest employer in the energy sector nationwide, but it is particularly prominent in Massachusetts, where leading energy efficiency incentives, some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and cold winter temperatures combine to boost demand for efficiency services. In Massachusetts, efficiency jobs make up nearly 57% of the total energy workforce, well above the national average of 40%, according to the E4TheFuture report

Still, the need for workers who can install heat pumps, operate high performance systems, conduct energy audits, and construct well-sealed building envelopes far outstrips the availability of trained workers in the state. 

And demand is only likely to grow. Boston earlier this month passed new regulations calling for large buildings to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and the climate bill signed this spring will allow towns to require new buildings to have net-zero emissions. The state’s decarbonization roadmap estimates a million buildings will need heating system retrofits by 2030 to remain on pace to reach the state’s emissions-reduction goals. 

“We’ve got a lot of old buildings here,” Stanton said. “It is a challenge, but if we don’t do it, we’re just not going to meet our carbon goals for sure.”

A visibility problem?

At the same time, the energy efficiency workforce is still bouncing back from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. From the end of 2019 to June 2020, the number of efficiency jobs dropped 17.6%. The workforce has edged back up, but is still notably smaller than its peak in 2019.

While demand for these workers is expected to continue climbing, supply remains a problem. In 2019, more than 90% of energy efficiency employers in the construction sector reported it was somewhat or very difficult to find new people to hire, according to a 2020 report from the National Association of State Energy Officials.

“We have seen that most employers in energy efficiency face difficulty with hiring,” said Mary Shoemaker, senior research analyst at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. “One of the main reasons is a challenge finding people with the right skill set to fill those jobs.”

To confront this gap, nonprofit advocates and state policymakers are pursuing two, interconnected strategies: raising awareness and creating clear career pathways. 

One of the major obstacles energy efficiency faces in attracting workers is the relative invisibility of the field. Efficiency can be hard to get a handle on, because it isn’t just one thing: It cuts across occupations, including jobs in operations and maintenance, construction, heating and ventilation, manufacturing, engineering, and design. Furthermore, energy efficiency work is often inconspicuous — high-performance insulation hidden behind the walls, heat pumps tucked away behind a house — and therefore gets less attention than more visible clean energy solutions like solar panels and offshore wind turbines.

“People aren’t taught what it is growing up, and even as adults most people don’t understand it,” Shoemaker said. “It is so multifaceted and it’s not as visual as other clean energy technologies.”

Connecting with youth

Some efforts are already underway in Massachusetts to familiarize young people with the opportunities energy efficiency work offers and help guide them toward careers. The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association is working with Boston workforce development firm The Compliance Mentor Group to launch a yearlong program that will expose students in vocational and technical high schools to career options in the high-performance building sector. 

The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center runs an internship program that reimburses clean energy employers for taking on college student interns. A similar initiative covers employers’ costs for offering opportunities to juniors and seniors from vocational high schools. The programs include, but are not limited to, energy efficiency work. 

And a new program the clean energy center has in the works would target people enrolled in technical training and certification courses. It will also include support funding to help students manage related expenses — the cost of getting a driver’s license, for example, or paying for occasional child care. At the completion of their training, students would get 12 weeks of work experience with a partner company. 

“That will help bring the workers to the employers,” said Tamika Jacques, director of workforce development for the clean energy center. 

It is widely agreed, however, that more needs to be done. 

Stanton would like to see the creation of a pre-apprenticeship program that would introduce young people to the basics of building science, the opportunities in energy efficiency, and employment soft skills. 

“Because energy efficiency has such a high proportion of entry-level jobs, it might be a really good place to invest,” she said. 

Jacques is interested in developing efforts to reach out to people as young as seventh and eighth grade, so they can head into high school — vocational or conventional — knowing that the energy efficiency field is an option and direct their studies accordingly. 

“We just need to do a better job of educating our workforce on what this pathway really offers,” she said.

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.