Biden’s climate agenda has a problem: There aren’t enough American workers

While the Inflation Reduction Act could lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, companies say they fear they will struggle to fill them. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON – US 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 labour shortage that threatens to derail President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda.

The Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in 2022, provides for an estimated US$370 billion (S$492 billion) in solar, wind and electric vehicle subsidies.

Starting Jan 1, American consumers can take advantage of those tax credits to upgrade home heating systems or put solar panels on their roofs. Those investments will create nearly 537,000 jobs a year for a decade, according to an analysis by BW Research commissioned by The Nature Conservancy.

But with the US unemployment rate at an historic low of 3.5 per cent, 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 US economy, the labour 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 Ms 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, which makes batteries for Ford Motor’s F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck in Commerce, Georgia, has pumped up pay and benefits as it ramps up its US workforce to 20,000 people by 2025 from 4,000 today.

The battery maker is advertising pay between US$20 and US$34 an hour, above Georgia’s median hourly wage of US$18.43, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It is also covering 100 per cent life insurance costs and matching retirement plan contributions of up to 6.5 per cent, above the national average of 5.6 per cent, 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 is recruiting aggressively, chief executive Peter Faricy said the company is also looking at what he called “crazy ideas” to secure labour, 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 about developing a solar panel that would be easier to install, enabling crews to outfit two homes a day instead of just one, Mr Faricy said.

SunPower’s competitor, Sunrun, 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,” Mr Chris McClellan, Sunrun’s senior vice-president of operations, said in an interview. REUTERS

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