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Biden Climate Plan Needs Workers

FILE: Now-President Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Taken June 4, 2019.
FILE: Now-President Joe Biden walks past solar panels while touring the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Taken June 4, 2019.

U.S. clean energy companies are offering better wages and benefits, flying in trainers from overseas, and contemplating ideas like buying roofing and electric repair shops just to hire their workers as firms try to overcome a labor shortage that threatens to derail President Joe Biden's climate change agenda.

with the U.S. unemployment rate at an historic low of 3.5%, companies say they fear they will struggle to fill those jobs, and that plans to transition away from fossil fuels could stall out. Despite layoff announcements and signs of a slowdown elsewhere in the economy, the labor market for clean energy jobs remains tight.

"It feels like a big risk for this expansion. Where are we going to find all the people?" said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group.

The shortage is anticipated to hit especially hard in electric vehicle and battery production and solar panel and home efficiency installations, forcing some of the companies into bold new approaches to find workers.

Korea's SK Innovation Co Ltd, which makes batteries for Ford Motor Co.'s F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck in Commerce, Georgia, has pumped up pay and benefits as it ramps up its U.S. workforce to 20,000 people by 2025 from 4,000 today.

SK told Reuters that it has been recruiting at military job fairs and American Legion chapters and collaborating with programs like the Georgia National Guard’s Work for Warriors and the Manufacturing Institute’s Heroes MAKE America.

The battery maker is advertising pay between $20 and $34 an hour, above Georgia’s median hourly wage of $18.43, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is also covering 100% life insurance costs and matching retirement plan contributions up to 6.5%, above the national average of 5.6%, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. And the company is providing free food on the job.

"Georgia’s talent pool is not really massive. But we are trying to improve some of our policies to better source and retain workers," said an SK official who declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.

Georgia state officials said SK's hiring has been a success considering how quickly production had to ramp up to meet the company's obligations to automakers.

While national residential solar installer SunPower Corp. is recruiting aggressively, Chief Executive Peter Faricy said the company is also looking at what he called "crazy ideas" to secure labor – including buying up companies just for their workers.

"I’m not suggesting we will do this, but I want to give you an order of magnitude of what we’re considering. Like, should we acquire a roofing company and make them all solar installers? Do we go buy an electrical company and acquire 100 electricians?" he said.

SunPower also held talks within the last year with panel manufacturer First Solar Inc. about developing a solar panel that would be easier to install, enabling crews to outfit two homes a day instead of just one, Faricy said.

SunPower’s competitor, Sunrun Inc. is deploying drones to survey roofs ahead of installation, reducing the number of workers required to scale roofs. It is also rewarding top crews with office parties.

"As best you can game-ify the experience for the employee... it just makes the industry more fun, more attractive," Chris McClellan, Sunrun's senior vice president of operations, said in an interview.

Offshore wind developer Orsted, a Danish company that is planning to build projects off the East Coast, hopes to fly in employees from projects in the United Kingdom and Asia to help train staff. State reports have indicated that New York and Massachusetts face large offshore wind workforce gaps.

“We’re creating sort of an ecosystem where we don't just have an offshore wind academy, but really train the trainers of the future,” said Mads Nipper, Orsted’s CEO, told Reuters.

The Biden Administration has repeatedly promised that new green energy jobs would be well-paying union jobs.

But many of those jobs have lagged the fossil fuel industry in pay, according to a 2021 study by BW Research, as clean energy companies have sought to contain costs to compete with entrenched industries. The IRA seeks to address that by tying prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements to the subsidies.

Those provisions -- and the hiring challenges -- have put pressure on some employers to use unionized labor.

In their hunt for workers, solar, wind and electric vehicle companies have expanded programs offering free and subsidized training to military veterans, women and the formerly incarcerated.

Some solar companies have tried to recruit veterans, saying the skills learned in military life translate well to the industry.

In Los Angeles, nonprofit Homeboy Industries, which works to rehabilitate former gang members, is using the potential job opportunities for solar panel installers to help recruits for its state-funded jobs program. Homeboy trains 50-60 people a year as solar panel installers.

More than 80% of the people who have gone through the training in the last year have found jobs in solar, according to Jackie Harper, who oversees the program.

“I’m going to be sticking with this,” said Marco Reyes, 28, who went through the program after his release from prison in February and earns $23 an hour as an installer in Valencia, California.