A weatherization worker drills holes to blow cellulose insulation in the interior walls of a Colorado home.
A weatherization worker drills holes to blow cellulose insulation in the interior walls of a home. Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL

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A group of lawmakers, advocates and nonprofit leaders hopes to hash out a plan in the coming months to help Vermont build the workforce it needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.

The initiative, one of the winning pitches at a recent competition hosted by the nonprofit Energy Action Network, aims to reduce barriers to creating Vermont’s “climate workforce,” covering the clean energy and conservation sectors. This could include coordinating training programs and aligning them more directly with employment opportunities, as well as launching a marketing campaign to build interest in working in the clean energy sector.

“There have been a lot of good programs and initiatives on various aspects of the climate workforce over the years, and many of the leaders and innovators of those programs are also involved in this effort,” said Cara Robechek, network action manager at the Energy Action Network. “What is different about this effort is that it is tied specifically to the needs identified in the Climate Action Plan, which was just approved Dec. 1.”

Vermont’s climate targets, which are legally binding under the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, include reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26% from 2005 levels by 2025 and by 40% from 1990 levels by 2030. 

Like other states, progress in Vermont will largely depend on electrifying the transportation and building sectors and weatherizing homes so they use less energy for heating. The state’s recently released Climate Plan — commissioned as part of the 2020 law — calls for another 90,000 homes to be weatherized in Vermont by 2030, in addition to the roughly 30,000 that have been weatherized in recent decades.

“That takes people,” said Gabrielle Stebbins, a state representative and senior consultant at Energy Futures Group, and one of two co-chairs on the new initiative. “And that takes people being trained in the near term so that we can get those folks out and working in the near term” to meet emissions targets.

Vermont’s clean energy workforce had an estimated 17,502 workers at the beginning of 2021, a pandemic-related drop after it had been hovering around 19,000 in recent years, according to a report commissioned by the Vermont Department of Public Service. Most workers were in energy efficiency-related jobs.

The Energy Action Network has estimated Vermont currently has about 700 weatherization workers. While modeling is not an exact science, “we have good reason to anticipate that, given what we know now … we will likely need somewhere in the range of 5,000 weatherization workers by sometime around the middle of this decade if we are to achieve the weatherization recommendations of the Climate Action Plan,” said Jared Duval, the network’s executive director. 

Weatherization contractors say hiring is already an ongoing challenge. Dwight DeCoster, weatherization program director at the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, said he’s been working with a team of 13 recently, short of the 15 he’d like to have to meet growing demand for weatherization work. He expects his needs to grow as state initiatives grow even more.

“While I’m excited to see that weatherization is being valued by our legislature as a clear solution to the [climate] problem, are we going to be able to complete that task by 2030?” DeCoster said.

He noted that the labor force is short across sectors. The $18-an-hour wage he’s able to offer employees, with benefits, isn’t always enough now that people can get other construction jobs where they make upward of $22 an hour.

“What we need to do is identify workers who are not engaged in the climate workforce currently and understand what the pipeline is going to look like and how we grow it so that we’re meeting Vermont’s needs as we scale up these types of climate jobs,” said Dylan Giambatista, leader of public affairs at Vermont Gas Systems and the other co-chair on the new effort. “Right now we’re at the preliminary stage of pulling these pieces together to make sure that we have the information.”

He noted that, particularly for younger workers, addressing climate change is a priority. “The question is: How do you harness their interests and ensure that the pathway is clear to the in-demand high-paying jobs that are available in these areas?”

Shanna Smith, executive director of the Northeast Employment and Training Organization, was planning to attend a January meeting of the workforce initiative. NETO provides weatherization services for income-eligible residents of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. For more than a month, Smith has had four positions open for weatherization crew members to add to the existing crew of 15. While her team would like to add several more positions on top of that in the coming year, she said it’s already been difficult to fill the current openings.

“It is challenging right now,” she said. With few applications coming in for NETO’s open positions, Smith was planning to see what her budget would allow to increase compensation, which currently starts at $16 an hour. NETO also offers workers a $500 sign-on bonus after six months on the job, along with health insurance benefits.

Weatherization “is hard work,” she said. “It is great work, it’s incredibly rewarding. … But it is hard. And it is hard to find people who want to get their hands dirty and climb underneath houses and go up in attics.”

Early plans

Leaders of the workforce development effort want to deliver concrete strategies to reduce barriers to entry to the climate workforce, such as costly training programs and lack of access to childcare. They also want to ensure people who pursue training have a clear path not only to jobs, but to careers with room for advancement. They’re placing a high priority on ensuring opportunities are available for women, youth, immigrants, people of color, people exiting correctional facilities and residents of the state’s rural areas, among others.

The group is only just beginning its meetings. It doesn’t have a set timeline, but Stebbins anticipates taking about six to nine months to assess workforce needs in Vermont and devise a plan, then shifting to implementation.

“How we see our collaborative effort is to really broaden the table and better coordinate the programs that already exist,” said Rhoni Basden, executive director of Vermont Works for Women. The organization is one of four with a workforce training program that helped develop the pitch. The others are ReSOURCE, the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps and Audubon Vermont.

From Basden’s perspective, Vermont doesn’t lack opportunities for residents to join the clean energy workforce. But stakeholders need to better coordinate these opportunities, she said, and knock down barriers to access. For example, she said, Vermont Works for Women just finished a session of its Trailblazers training program in which 13 women graduated with experience in construction, remodeling and welding. They all had job offers, but six had to turn down opportunities due to lack of childcare and reliable transportation — a concern for many residents of Vermont, a rural state with few public transportation options. 

“Job offers are there and people are being trained, but addressing those barriers … is really going to be a big factor in this,” Basden said. Vermont Works for Women is preparing to launch a new renewable energy-focused version of the Trailblazers program to train participants in solar panel installation, weatherization and other clean energy-focused careers.

After being selected in the pitch competition, the workforce development group is receiving staff support from the Energy Action Network as well as $15,000 in seed funding from the organization. Stebbins said group leaders in early discussions have floated the possibility of compensating participants. She noted, for example, if the group wants input from Vermont’s sizable New American community (which includes immigrants and other people born outside the United States), they have to be mindful of asking people to take time from jobs or other commitments.

Members of the pitch team also want to better coordinate education and employment opportunities. A lack of consistent program funding has meant that contractors often don’t know how many projects they’ll be guaranteed from year to year. Nor do they know whether any given workforce development program will last long enough to deliver a consistent supply of workers.

The Global Warming Solutions Act should help reduce some uncertainty, since it holds the state accountable for meeting its climate goals, Stebbins noted. But she said the new workforce building initiative should help bridge the gap between educators, employers and workers, who also need to know they’re entering a job with a livable wage and prospects for advancement.

Pitches were voted on twice in the competition — once at the Energy Action Network’s annual fall summit and then again by the group’s broader membership. Robechek said more than 100 people voted in total. After the voting rounds, the group’s board confirms the winning pitches. In addition to the workforce pitch, the 2021 winners included a group that wants to develop a plan for investment of Transportation and Climate Initiative revenues in Vermont (assuming the state joins the pact), as well as a group that wants to help plan the phase-out of fossil fuel-dependent equipment in the state.

“The climate workforce is such an important thing for us to be figuring out, so it’s exciting to see where this pitch goes,” Robechek said.

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.