Educating The Next Generation To Compete In The Clean Energy Economy

by Kate Gordon

I’ve spent many years making the case that transitioning to a greener, more advanced energy economy will create jobs, spur economic growth and put America on a path toward global technological leadership.

But lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve placed too much emphasis on the stuff side of this equation — the need for investment in the products that make up the greener economy, like the wind farms, smart grid systems and efficient cars — and not enough on the people side — the high-quality workforce that can actually dream up, make, and install all that stuff.

My colleague, Ann O’Leary, tends to focus her work on people more than on stuff, and she knows well that education and training are absolutely fundamental to any strategy for economic growth.

She has a new report out, jointly produced and co-authored by The Center for the Next Generation and the Center for American Progress, showing that our primary international competitors, China and India, are gearing up to seize a larger share of the future economy through greater investments in education.

That report, “The Competition That Really Matters,” compares U.S., Chinese and Indian investments in the next-generation workforce. The research shows that a highly ambitious commitment to education is the heart of economic revitalization in China and India, leading them to expand the number of children enrolled at all levels of the education system, producing up to five times as many college graduates each year.

Meanwhile, approximately 44 percent of American workers do not have any education beyond high school. By 2018, only 36 percent of jobs will be open to workers with a high school diploma, while 63 percent will require at least some form of post-secondary education. The math is simple. At this pace, we will fall well behind the competition — and forfeit lucrative jobs in the process.

What does this mean? Americans run the risk of consigning another generation to low-skill, low-wage jobs — and higher rates of poverty.

Given these sobering results, Ann and her co-authors, Donna Cooper and Adam Hersh, argue that the American education system needs a shot in the arm. They contend that we need to make human capital investments, especially in young people — and that investing in education will yield the highest rate of return.

I think they’re right, but I also think that for a green economy, we need to go a step further.

The emerging advanced energy economy worldwide is already creating millions of jobs and generating trillions of dollars in economic activity. These jobs run the gamut — research and development, engineering, architecture, advanced manufacturing, construction, operations and maintenance. They provide well-paid opportunities for low-, middle- and high-skill workers.

But are we educating and training Americans to be able to access these jobs? Talk to employers across the advanced energy spectrum, and they’ll tell you we don’t have a workforce capable of matching job needs, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors, which comprise nearly half of the new energy economy.

So not only do we need to better educate our children, we need to better prepare our future workforce for highly technical and skill-based jobs in the emerging energy sector.

In the past, we’ve addressed this issue in large part by splitting up our educational goals and our workforce training goals. Different federal agencies work on K-12 education (Department of Education) and on training programs for specific industries and occupations (Department of Labor). In the schools that have tried to incorporate both, we’ve too often seen a split between the “academic” tracks and the “vocational” tracks, forcing students to choose between hands-on careers and academic studies even before they’ve had a chance to show their own particular interests or potential.

There has to be a better way. We need our graduates with skills to become journeyman electricians installing large solar arrays as well as with the intellectual tools for a career as a PhD engineer designing new and more efficient future projects.

My former CAP colleagues, Louis Soares and Stephen Steigleder, call this foundational knowledge “technical literacy,” and we talk about how to get there in a new paper for the green economy symposium of the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change.

“Preparing America’s Workforce for Jobs in the Green Economy: A Case for Technical Literacy” argues that the clean energy revolution will be more capital and labor intensive than the high-tech or biotech revolutions. It will also require more workers, nearly half of whom will need technical skills in traditionally “middle-skill” jobs like construction, and manufacturing.

This vision of a more technically literate workforce requires that all students get an education that is both academic and practical.

Unfortunately, our existing post-secondary education and workforce training systems are not adequately equipped to achieve technical literacy. The current system isn’t flexible enough to accommodate the needs of our students and workers: the two primary federal programs aimed at providing technical workforce training are underfunded and short-sighted; and public and private workforce training schemes are disjointed.

The key to creating a more coherent post-secondary education system that delivers technical literacy is for business and education leaders to leverage their knowledge of labor markets, skills and pedagogy to build new curriculum and instructional models.

Community colleges, situated as they are at the crossroads of higher education and workforce training, are an ideal starting point.

Beyond them, my co-authors and I recommend two approaches to promote and expand innovative community college-industry partnerships. The first is to use existing federal, state and local funds to promote innovation and use more research to identify best practices. The second is to use these partnerships for large-scale experiments, supported by a federal grant program, to demonstrate that they’re achievable.

For such efforts to be effective in creating jobs, America needs to make a clear commitment to a more advanced and sustainable energy future and a skilled workforce to maintain it. Otherwise, policymakers risk putting training dollars into ossified programs that will prepare workers for jobs that simply do not exist.

Kate Gordon is Director of Advanced Energy and Sustainability at the Center for the Next Generation, and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

5 Responses to Educating The Next Generation To Compete In The Clean Energy Economy

  1. Ken Barrows says:

    Kate, no! We don’t want economic growth! We just want a decent life and a livable climate.

    So, Kate, don’t push for economic growth. Because in the end (of this century), your desires get us to the same place as Mitt Romney’s.

  2. Kate,
    Great article. We promote and support Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education through use of real renewable energy data. We have found the work done by the National Academies to be both validating and motivating. A link to the executive summary of that congressionally sanctioned work is here – – For those who think this is an issue for the left this may give pause as a number of industry superstars including the CEO of Intel and Exxon were on the committee that generated the report. The worked with leaders in academia from institutions including MIT, RPI and Yale.

    You are in good company! Keep up the good work.

  3. Leif says:

    I agree with Ken the emphasis needs to be on the Green Wakening Economy in all facets. Improved health care at the street level up, etc. Financed by endless clean energy from the sun. Will it take work? You bet. Think jobs. Will ALL benefit? If not, we ain’t doing it right! Will there be lean times? Every battle has them. Your choice. Status quo, or take wing.

    “Meanwhile, approximately 44 percent of American workers do not have any education beyond high school.”

    One thing for sure is that almost every one of those 44% know how to handle a gun and where to find one.

  4. Kate Gordon says:

    Ken, I hear you. But what if we re-think the concept of economic growth instead of dismissing it altogether? I’m very interested in the U.S. continuing to manufacture goods, for instance, because I think our economy should have a solid balance of industries and not just depend on the service sector. Manufacturing jobs anchored the middle class after all, and are still a solid option for middle-skill workers. And I’d rather have our wind turbines and solar panels made here than elsewhere. But for manufacturing firms to make things here, we have to have demand for things here, which means we have to spend money, which is essentially economic growth. Right?

  5. Omega Centauri says:

    That sounds right. In any case getting to some sort of sustainable steady-state economy is going to mean that a great deal of green infrastructure will have to be built up. So for the next two or three decades shooting for a steady-state economy will sill feel like growth.

    Now, sustaining demand for this green infrastructure is our number one problem -even greater than education. Turning government subsidies and projects on and off depending upon which way the political winds blew the last election, just drives these sorts of opportunities overseas, and trained employees into more stable industries. If I was going to start a clean energy company, I wouldn’t do it in the US, I would choose a green-friendly country instead. So we have some serious headwinds, beyond just education.