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There is a problem with green energy: there aren’t enough electricians. Here’s one possible solution.

Before joining the Civilian Climate Corps, Robert Clark assumed that building and electrical work were all low-skilled labour, akin to “working at McDonald’s,” he said. That was before he discovered how to instal electric heat pumps, maintain electric vehicle charging stations, and create 3D image models of spaces undergoing energy upgrades.

According to Clark, the apprenticeship programme has changed his life. Prior to joining, he struggled to find work, in part due to a felony burglary conviction. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said of joining the Civilian Climate Corps, which pays him $20 per hour to learn skills and obtain certifications that will allow him to find work. He hopes to go back to school to become an engineer.

Clark is one of 1,700 New Yorkers who have participated in the Civilian Climate Corps, a programme created by BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based building electrification startup, and the city of New York.

The programme, which will be launched in 2021 with $37 million from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, has a lofty dual mandate: develop a workforce capable of assisting the city in meeting its ambitious climate goals while also bringing jobs to communities affected by gun violence.

“Labor supply is a significant issue, but it also represents a massive opportunity,” said Donnel Baird, CEO and founder of BlocPower. Baird grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood, where he said many Black and low-income families, including his own, used gas stoves to compensate for inefficient heating systems.

“We’re going into the lowest-income communities, where people are at risk of gun violence — personally, their families, their communities — and we’re training them on the latest, greatest software to instal green infrastructure in urban and rural settings,” Baird said in 2021.

Access to jobs has been shown in several studies to correlate with lower crime rates; one study of youth employment in New York City discovered a 10% drop in incarceration for those who had summer jobs.

New York has ambitious plans to decarbonize its buildings, which are the city’s primary source of emissions. It has prohibited new gas connections and set limits on how much existing buildings can emit. By 2027, all new buildings must be entirely electric. Building emissions will be reduced by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050, according to city officials.

The Inflation Reduction Act includes new federal tax credits that provide additional incentives for developers and homeowners to replace outdated gas furnaces and boilers with electric upgrades.

The only issue is that there aren’t enough skilled workers.

“America is in desperate need of skilled construction workers of all kinds,” Baird said. Finding skilled construction workers who know how to instal heat pumps, solar panels, and transmission lines is especially difficult, with the National Electrical Contractors Association reporting that more electricians retire each year than are replaced. According to Rewiring America, an electrification nonprofit, the country requires a million new electricians just to complete the new wiring required for the energy transition.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been a CEO,” said Ari. According to his organization’s estimates, over a billion machines, ranging from breaker boxes to rooftop solar panels, will need to be installed or replaced in American homes over the next several decades.

“The scale that is needed to meet the moment when it comes to our climate goals — but also to deliver savings to households and to reinvest in our communities — is pretty massive. And that necessitates the use of experts,” Matusiak explained. He predicted that the country would require hundreds of thousands of HVAC technicians, as well as skilled manufacturing and service-level workers, in addition to electricians.

The shortage, according to Sam Steyer, co-founder and CEO of Greenwork, a startup that connects clean energy developers with local contractors, is due in part to negative messaging about skilled trade work to Millennial and Gen Z workers.

“If you go back ten years, everyone was saying, ‘Oh, everything will be replaced by automation and globalisation, and the only path to a strong economic future is college,'” Steyer said. “I believe we are now bearing the consequences of that.”

Baird and his colleagues designed the Civilian Climate Corps programme specifically to address these shortages. The programme recruits trainees (or “members,” as BlocPower prefers) from low-income areas identified as having high rates of gun violence. It typically offers one month of workplace etiquette and business communication classes followed by about two months of technical training, which includes low-voltage electrical work, heating, ventilation, and air conditioner (HVAC) installation and workplace safety training. The majority of members then progress to on-site apprenticeships.

According to BlocPower, over 400 Civilian Climate Corps participants have found employment in related fields, with 62% having completed OSHA training. And, perhaps most importantly, members, over 81% of whom were previously underemployed or unemployed, are paid $20 per hour while undergoing training.

BlocPower opened two training centres in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and the South Bronx this fall. Mayor Eric Adams announced a $54 million expansion of the programme in October, allowing 3,000 more New Yorkers to participate in the coming year.

For years, Washington policymakers have advocated for a federal civilian climate corps. President Joe Biden called for a programme “to mobilise the next generation of conservation and resilience workers” early in his administration, and Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation to create a national civilian climate corps. Funding for such programmes was ultimately removed from the Inflation Reduction Act, but BlocPower hopes its programme can “serve as a model for future national programming,” according to a spokesperson.

According to a BlocPower spokesperson, the company is in the early stages of expanding its job-training programme to cities such as Buffalo, Denver, and San Jose.

Cities such as Ithaca, Philadelphia, and Menlo Park, California have enlisted the company’s assistance in electrifying their buildings. Menlo Park has set an ambitious goal of electrifying 95% of its existing buildings (roughly 10,000) by 2030.

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