Niyah Webb, a 2021 N.C. Clean Energy Youth Apprentice at CPL, an architecture and engineering firm in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Niyah Webb, a 2021 N.C. Clean Energy Youth Apprentice at CPL, an architecture and engineering firm in Greensboro, North Carolina. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

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Niyah Webb never envisioned a career in energy-efficient building design. A gifted artist, she began to study engineering because she longed to work in animatronics. 

“I was inspired by a trip to Disney World,” Webb said. “I went to the Avatar exhibit, and at the end of the Na’Vi River Journey, there is the most beautiful animatronic I have ever seen in my life.”

But now that she has completed an apprenticeship program at a Greensboro, North Carolina, architecture firm — and still works there part-time while finishing coursework at Guilford Technical Community College — Webb is reassessing.

“I was surprised at how stimulated my mind was when my boss would teach me about energy conservation and how heat moves,” Webb said. “It’s interesting to see where I am now, contemplating: ‘Do I want to be an architect?’”

That’s part of the idea behind the North Carolina Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship Program: Inspiring young people to consider working in the state’s burgeoning clean energy economy and giving them the skills to follow through.

Now in its third year, the first-of-its-kind initiative is set to double to encompass 60 community college and high school students across eight counties this summer, from urban ones like Guilford to rural areas like Halifax.

Balu Gokaraju, associate professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the project’s pioneer, hopes to expand to 17 counties encompassing 1,000 students in the next four years. “We have a great framework of bringing the whole state together,” he said.

A gifted artist, Niyah Webb initially sought a career in animatronics. After her clean energy apprenticeship, she’s considering architecture instead. Credit: Elizabeth Ouzts

‘One of the frontrunners’

Just before the pandemic, the state was home to nearly 113,000 jobs related to the clean energy transition, from solar installers to wind turbine component manufacturers to roles like those filled by Webb in building efficiency. 

As the post-pandemic economy recovers and evolves under state policies to shift entirely away from fossil fuels, those jobs are poised to grow exponentially. Offshore wind power alone could create another 31,000 jobs in the state by 2030, one study by a pair of nonprofits found.  

Existing industries like architecture will also begin to transform, said Tom Phoenix, Webb’s former boss at Clark Patterson Lee, an architecture, engineering and planning firm. “The focus of our industry is really changing,” said Phoenix, who retired last year and now works in the field as a consultant. “The entire discussion is all about carbon reduction.” 

CPL, for instance, has formed a committee to help the company refocus on high-performance buildings that use less energy, Phoenix said. “CPL is not alone,” he added. “Everybody in our business is doing that. You’re either going to get on this train, or you’re going to wind up getting left behind.” 

Whether in new industries or transforming ones, the apprenticeship program is designed to give young people training and credentials at the starts of their careers that they can build on over time. 

“We saw that North Carolina could be one of the frontrunners of changing the economy toward clean energy,” said Gokaraju, who piloted the program with nine students in 2020. “We wanted to start to build the skills needed for [the] workforce.” 

Anchored by A&T, the nation’s largest historically Black university, the apprenticeships are geared especially toward women and girls and people of color, who are underrepresented in the state’s clean energy economy. 

Black people make up over a fifth of the state’s population but just 8.5% of those working in clean energy, according to a report by nonprofit E2. Women are over half the population but just under 30% of the clean energy workforce, the same study showed. 

Yet, of the 31 apprentices who participated last year, Gokaraju said with pride, “93% were minority and 69% were females.”  

Rhonda High, at far right, with the 2021 Lighthouse Solar Energy Camp class. Credit: Halifax Community College / Courtesy

‘Why not create the labor force right here?’ 

That success rate is due in large part to the vision of public-school leaders in Halifax County, one of the state’s poorest, where over half the population is Black. Home to vast, flat farmlands, the county and surrounding region also host scores of solar fields. As students struggled during the pandemic, Halifax County Schools superintendent Eric Cunningham said he saw an opportunity.  

“I wanted our kids to get involved in clean energy because it’s all around us,” Cunningham said. “Solar farms are here. They’re going to have to be repaired, maintained, and replaced. Why not create the labor force right here?” 

So, in partnership with A&T, and the North Carolina State Energy Office, and others, Cunningham and other Halifax educational leaders created the Lighthouse Solar Energy Camp, its name taken from the school system’s logo. 

Asked how a lighthouse became an emblem for a school district 150 miles from the coast, Cunningham laughed. “Ain’t no water in Halifax! You’re right,” he said. But just as a lighthouse guides ships to shore during a storm, he said, so does education light a pathway for children. “Kids who have severe deficits and are way out in the water can see the light, and they just have to keep paddling,” he said. “We are the lighthouse.” 

Twenty high school students made up the first class of apprentices in 2021. Unlike Webb and other community college students — who received a three-day orientation and then went straight to on-the-job training — the high schoolers got classroom training only. 

Rhonda High, customized training director at Halifax Community College, modeled the curriculum on an existing pre-apprenticeship program for industrial manufacturing. The 96-hour course includes solar-specific classes, safety training, and instruction in “soft skills” such as group problem-solving. 

The students selected for the apprenticeships must achieve a bronze-level or higher on a career readiness certification, High said. “Employers can know, we’re not just putting warm bodies in a seat,” she said. “We’re putting warm bodies that have the ability to succeed in the seat.” 

Like the college students, the high school apprentices receive credentials they can put toward their education and their careers. And crucially, the credits articulate up to four-year universities, said Caroline Sullivan, executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, a business-led nonprofit that operates out of the governor’s office and was another key partner in the initiative. 

Sullivan’s group kicked in $15,000 to help cover the Halifax students’ food and transportation to the college. The rest of the apprenticeship costs were covered by government grants. From federal funds to state agencies to the local school district, Sullivan said, “this is a good example of all of the levers of government working well.” 

Like Webb, many of the Halifax apprentices have parlayed their internships into jobs in the solar industry or other fields. Cunningham, for instance, hired one student to work in the Halifax County Schools maintenance department while he pursues coursework in HVAC. 

“When you earn while you learn, and earn credentials,” Cunningham said, “that is a combustible combination!” 

‘A step to being right’ 

Though the apprenticeship program began with Gokaraju and A&T, Sullivan believes Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat in his second term, also gets credit for the creation of the Lighthouse Solar Energy Camp. 

“It needed the [state] energy office and us to make it go, and we work for him,” Sullivan said. “We met twice a week for three months to get this done. I think Gov. Cooper’s leadership was integral.” 

A January executive order from Cooper, signed at A&T, will grow the program further by five additional sites this summer. The apprenticeships will cover 60 high school and community college students — half in the region surrounding Halifax Schools, five in the Charlotte area, 10 in the Raleigh area, and 15 around Greensboro. 

The apprenticeships will also be officially registered with the state, a critical distinction that qualifies student apprentices to get their community college tuition paid by the state. “It’s an awesome opportunity,” Sullivan said. 

Employers in the Halifax area will visit the community college after the classroom training to provide apprentices with more practical experience. Strata Clean Energy will visit for a week to focus on solar installations. The Roanoke Electric Cooperative will bring electric vehicles the following week. 

Wood pellet manufacturer Enviva will also visit the campus for two days, despite facing intense criticism for the air pollution created by its four plants in North Carolina and for its core product, which many scientists say is making climate change worse, not better.

Last summer, Webb’s first project was a crash course in using computer software to model a building renovation for Alamance County. “I had to model the building without any information about its height or certain measurements,” she said. “I had to count bricks and compare sizes to guess and estimate.”  In the end, she said, “it came out really well, and I’m glad I impressed them, because it definitely was a puzzle.”

Her experience shapes the advice she gives to this year’s crop of apprentices, whether on the job or in the classroom.

“I’d say be okay with learning. A lot of times people get nervous and feel insecure or even have imposter syndrome,” she said. “I just say take it one step at a time and be okay with being wrong — because it’s a step to being right.”

Elizabeth Ouzts

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.