But the installation of all this electric stuff – solar panels, heat pumps, transmission lines – will require something the United States does not have: many, many electricians.
According to the non-profit group Rewiring America, which focuses on electrification, moving the economy away from fossil fuels will require no less than 1 billion new appliances, cars and other items in American households alone.
“That’s one billion machines that need to be installed or replaced over the next 25 years in 121 million homes,” said Ari Matusiak, CEO of Rewiring America. “There must be a lot more people trained to install these machines, and a subset of those are electricians who are trained to plug in switches, wire up our homes and plug devices into our electrical sources.”
The problem is that many in the industry say the country is already in a state of shortage of electricians, which could get worse as clean energy increases. “We are in a shortage of electricians now,” said Sam Steyer, president and CEO of Greenwork, a start-up that seeks to connect clean energy workers with companies. Steyer says homeowners attempting to install heat pumps or electric car chargers have already reported problems finding certified dealers to do the job they need – waiting lists sometimes stretch for months.
Part of the problem is that more people leave the profession than enter it. According to the National Electrical Contractors Association, more electricians retire each year than are replaced. This is part of what is known as the “silver tsunami,” or a wave of traders aging from their careers and leaving a hole behind. There are approximately 700,000 electricians working in the country today, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be approximately 80,000 new electrician jobs available each year through 2031, and that most of these jobs will just replace the existing workforce.
Steyer blames part of the current lack of cultural assumptions about working in fields like construction or electrical work. “There have been very negative messages to millennials and Generation Z about exchanges over the past 20 years,” she said. “There were a lot of articles that said, ‘All blue-collar jobs will go away, everyone will become knowledge workers or health workers.’ “
Now this will have to change. And some projects are already underway to increase the pipeline of available electricians. Workers who want to become electricians must first do an apprenticeship, through a union or a company. The Inflation Reduction Act, the historic climate law passed by Congress in August, includes the requirement that companies receiving tax incentives for wind and solar energy also employ a certain proportion of apprentices: 10% of working time in 2022 and 15% by 2024. Steyer says this could help encourage companies to train more young workers and add them to the system. Other groups are also working to expose more young people to the options of entering a profession and helping them support them during their first few months of work.
Dan Conant, CEO and founder of Solar Holler, a solar installation company in West Virginia, says addressing the shortage will take time. His company managed to find enough workers by unionizing, thus allowing them access to workers from the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers. But tackling the bigger problem will take longer. “West Virginia is short of about 3,000 electricians,” he said. “We can’t fix it overnight.”
Ultimately, however, the need for electricians may be a feature of the clean energy transition, not a bug. “These are jobs that are not being automated or outsourced,” Matusiak said. Once, moving away from fossil fuels was considered a dangerous move as it could cost the country jobs in coal mining or other fossil fuel industries. (The coal mining industry today employs about 37,000 people, less than six percent of the number of people employed as electricians.) Now, Matusiak argues, more and more people are realizing that the shift to clean energy will create far more jobs. work of how many you remove. “I take it as good news, not bad news,” he said. “These are jobs that are also career paths.”
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