Jobs in solar and other energy sector roles should offer competitive compensation

Utah’s renewable energy sector is on the verge of a major boom, thanks to new federal incentives for renewables. Utah’s solar industry is already the nation’s second largest and experts project the solar labor force will need to double by 2030.

With the right approach, new solar investments could transform our economy — creating thousands of quality jobs for Utahns and transitioning fossil fuel workers, and by creating thousands more opportunities to train new workers for in-demand careers in almost every corner of the state.

But we won’t realize these benefits if the people building this new energy infrastructure are under-trained, out of state workers being shuffled around the country by temp agencies and paid sub-market wages.

As someone who represents local workers trained to work in these emerging industries, I frequently travel to Utah job sites where new facilities are being constructed. And I see no shortage of Mississippi, Texas or other out-of-state license plates at these locations.

Here’s why I believe this is a problem for all of us.

There is a difference between a job and a quality job. A quality job pays the employee enough to live near work, enough for the employer to be able to attract and retain qualified workers, and enough so that taxpayers aren’t subsidizing low wages and poor benefits through Medicaid or other government welfare programs. It also invests in the kind of local workforce supply pipeline that no growing industry can function without.

When it comes to building a new energy economy these things really matter. Researchers have linked workforce investment—especially in the construction and energy sectors—with better outcomes for industry and our communities.

This is not an issue of project costs. Research finds that when construction employers invest in job quality, they attract higher skill to the job site, see higher levels of workforce productivity, better safety outcomes and lower risk for labor shortages and turnover problems. Long term, this is better — not worse — for workers, businesses and the bottom line.

As a lifelong laborer, I’m living proof of concept. I’ve built a career in Utah’s construction industry, working on bridges, power plants, high rises, pipelines, and municipal utility projects — earning my keep from Tremonton to Vernal, and from Deseret to Mexican Hat.

Today, as the Business Manager for LiUNA Local 295 — I represent professional men and women who are trained and ready to lead Utah’s emerging solar industry.

Unfortunately, unlike other states, Utah doesn’t require utilities or contractors to hire qualified local workers, nor do we track the percentage of our energy workforce that is local. That’s why, last year, I suggested the Utah Public Service Commission start collecting this information on all major energy projects in the state.

Further, policy makers and industry regulators could choose to link utility scale energy project approvals, tax credits, and other public incentives with a Utah-First workforce strategy.

Other states have shown that including local market wage and workforce development standards on clean energy projects maximize economic benefits and promotes greater stability in the labor supply pipeline this growing industry needs. In Utah, it could also help ensure trained Utahns looking for work are first in line for new jobs in green energy (and if they aren’t trained, expanding their access to training opportunities).

Construction — whether it’s a new courthouse, or a utility-scale energy facility — requires both physical stamina and trade skill. When the industry fails to make the long-term investments necessary to meet both needs locally, it makes it harder to sustain itself through the booms and busts of the economy and the labor market. That’s why an analysis of survey data from the Associated General Contractors of America recently found that the non-unionized segments of the construction industry, where investments in workforce and training are lower than the alternative, were struggling the most to find enough workers to complete projects .

Ultimately, the green energy boom is a good thing. So too is the fact that experts are predicting this could unleash a torrent or new jobs over the next decade that do not require applicants to incur a mountain of student debt. However, it’s going to take a generation-defining commitment here in Utah to deliver the workforce these projects demand, and the quality careers that these workers deserve.

We can choose to define what a successful green energy economy looks like. It’s not just about building solar panels, wind turbines, gas pipelines, geo-thermal, or nuclear energy facilities here in Utah. Rather, it’s about whether working Utahns and our communities are going to fully realize the benefit from this historic investment.

Tom Davidson is the Business Manager of Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 295, which represents hundreds of Utah’s skilled craft and energy sector workers. He also serves as a leader on United Today, Stronger Tomorrow’sGood Jobs and Community Priorities Steering Committee.

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