As California policymakers speed up the state’s switch to renewable energy, a key question is this: Do the much-touted new green jobs actually go to a diverse cross-section of the state’s workforce, or are disadvantaged communities left out?

According to data obtained and analyzed by researchers at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, the answer is that in recent years, a significant share of good, career-track jobs in the construction of renewable energy power plants in Kern County and statewide have in fact gone to low-income residents and people of color.

Our recently issued report shows that the joint union-employer apprenticeship programs used in these projects have played an important role in diversifying California’s clean energy workforce.

In Kern County, local data shows that 43 percent of entry-level electrical workers on solar power plant construction lived in communities designated as disadvantaged by the California Environmental Protection Agency, while 47 percent lived in communities with unemployment rates of at least 13 percent.

Kern County electrical apprentice pay schedules show a clear progression toward the middle class. Current first-year apprentices start at $16.49 per hour plus full benefits and receive wage increases as they move through their five-year training program. Graduates become journey electricians earning more than $40 per hour.

Statewide, the picture is similar. Among the 16 union locals of electricians, ironworkers, and operating engineers that have built most of California’s renewable energy power plants, about 60 percent of new apprentices were people of color.

Diversity varied by trade. Latinos, who make up one-third of the state’s labor force, represented 53 percent of new apprentice ironworkers, 34 percent of electrical workers, and 23 percent of operating engineers. While African-Americans are 6 percent of the statewide labor force, they made up 4 percent of new apprentice electricians, 6 percent of ironworkers, and 9 percent of operating engineers.

The presence of military veterans in these programs also was higher than in California’s workforce as a whole. While veterans are only 4 percent of statewide workers, they comprised 9 percent of new electrical apprentices, 6 percent of ironworkers, and 12 percent of operating engineers.

The weak point in these apprenticeship programs, as with the rest of California’s construction industry, was the participation of women, ranging from only 2 percent to 6 percent among the three trades.

All told, the track record shows that California has made progress toward broadening access for disadvantaged workers to good jobs in the clean energy economy. But this diversity has not been automatic. A key driver of progress is the fact that most renewable energy plants were built under project labor agreements, which ensure union wage and benefit standards and free training for low-skilled workers through state-certified apprenticeships. Recruitment efforts by unions and the projects’ locations were also important since many renewable power plants are in counties such as Kern that have high unemployment and concentrations of low-income communities.

Looking forward, job access in the clean energy industry can be advanced by adopting specific programs such as publicly funded pre-apprenticeship training and local-hire provisions, in combination with project labor agreements.

Additional progress is likely if state lawmakers approve SB 100, which would commit California electricity providers to obtain 100 percent of their power from clean energy sources by 2045. This would drive further growth of renewable energy construction, which in turn would create more jobs and more openings in state-certified apprenticeship programs. The net result would be an important step forward along California’s path to meeting its climate challenge while simultaneously broadening access to middle-class jobs.

Carol Zabin and Robert Collier are director and policy specialist, respectively, of the Green Economy Program at the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley.

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