Massachusetts — like most places — has a problem when it comes to climate solutions.
The state has just a few years to drastically slash emissions and that means it needs more of everything, fast: more heat pumps, more electric vehicles and EV chargers, more solar panels. Just to get those things installed and working will require massive numbers of trained workers — nearly 40,000 more by 2030 than the state has.
Then there’s another, seemingly unrelated problem. More than 10 percent of individuals in the state are living in poverty, and a third of residents 16 and older weren’t in the civilian labor force in recent years, according to the most recent census data.
In attempts to make strides on both and begin to deliver on the promise of the so-called Green New Deal, city and state officials are funding a spate of programs that will recruit people who aren’t in the workforce and, in many cases, pay them to learn green energy trades. BlocPower, a national Black-founded climate tech company will provide formerly incarcerated people with classroom and on-site job training to install heat pumps and other clean energy technologies in Boston. MassHire North Shore is launching a six-month apprenticeship program for offshore wind careers.
In all, more than 40 organizations recently received a total of $18 million in grant funds from the state.
“If we’re really going to walk the walk and talk about righting wrongs and providing opportunities, the easiest and best way to start doing that is through job training,” said state Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Rebecca Tepper.
The programs are small bites at two massive problems, but officials say they hope to see them scale up, taking bigger bites as they grow. Their success is imperative because they represent a way forward that embraces the clean energy transformation while lifting people out of poverty and tapping into a potential workforce that may be easier to bring to clean energy jobs than those already working in other fields.
“The Green New Deal is about saying: Where do we find solutions that fit squarely at the heart of both the climate crisis and economic inequality?” said Reverend Mariama White-Hammond, chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space for the city of Boston, which is now more than a year into its PowerCorps green jobs program. “How do we help people who are deeply impacted by the economic crisis to lift themselves up through climate action? They don’t have to choose one or the other because the two come together in the same package.”
One program that officials hope is a model that can be greatly expanded in disadvantaged communities is Solar Helping Ignite Neighborhood Economies (SHINE). It will train recruits to be solar installers and then hire them to install a solar project in their community. SHINE’s initial project will take on 40 recruits and install panels on the roof of the new Children’s Services of Roxbury building. The electricity it generates will be available to residents who sign up, likely lowering their utility bills, said the project’s proponents.
“For the entire 30 years that I’ve been involved in climate action, the perspective has been that climate action is an economic drag,” said Frank Lowenstein, senior director at the international conservation organization Rare, which is launching SHINE this week. “And this is turning that on its head and saying climate action is the pathway to an economic future for these historically marginalized communities.”
For the project to succeed, Lowenstein said, trainees will need broader support. The group has partnered with the nonprofit Action for Boston Community Development for help finding housing and child care and other services.
“It’s our hope that our communities are integrated into what’s happening and what is coming,” said Sharon Scott-Chandler, president of ABCD. That means ensuring the communities they serve are able to access the good paying jobs and careers in the clean energy industry, she said.
These programs are coming as interest and opportunities around the clean energy transition are growing. State incentives from Mass Save plus federal tax credits through last year’s Inflation Reduction Act put expensive items such as heat pumps and electric vehicles within reach for more people. But heat pumps only work if you can find an installer to put one in and solar fields don’t just go up on their own.
“The difficulty around hiring has only gotten worse each year,” said Jennifer Applebaum, managing director of workforce development at the Mass Clean Energy Center, a quasi-public agency that supports the state’s green energy industry. She noted that a recent clean energy industry report found nine out of 10 employers are having trouble hiring enough workers.
“We think about the opportunity of climate work in the state also being an economic opportunity,” Applebaum said. “It can only reach that full potential of economic opportunity if we look at strategies that include people who previously haven’t been able to get these sustainable wage career pathway opportunities.”
Since launching its PowerCorps program in June 2022, the city of Boston has graduated two classes. The program pays young adults to participate in training for jobs in green industries and then helps connect them with employers. So far, there have been 51 graduates, focusing on fields including tree maintenance and planting and decarbonized building operations. Next year the city is planning to have a group focused on jobs in the solar industry.
In addition to creating opportunities and filling needed positions, White-Hammond said, the program has another positive effect: changing the stereotype of what groups of people fulfill clean energy jobs.
“We’re trying to change the image of who does tree work, we want to change the image of who is able to run these technologies,” she said.