Engineers with the Center for Energy and Environment monitor energy use at a project site. Energy efficiency jobs make up 75 percent of Minnesota's clean energy workforce. Submitted image

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Minnesota’s clean energy jobs are coming back strong from losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new report. 

More than 11,500 workers in the state’s clean energy industry filed for unemployment in 2020, due to slowdowns for in-person work caused by COVID-19, an August report by the nonprofit Clean Energy Economy Minnesota found. About half of those workers were back in the labor force by the end of the year, with 55,300 people employed in clean energy jobs statewide by December. 

Minnesota’s clean energy workforce—people employed in energy efficiency, carbon-free fuel sources like solar and wind power, and related fields—is more diverse than the state’s labor force as a whole, according to data compiled by Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. But industry experts say the field continues to be dominated by white men and more needs to be done to ensure opportunities in the green economy for people of color and women. 

Now, green energy firms like Center for Energy and Environment and advocacy groups such as Unidos MN are working to get people of color into well-paying careers in the growing field. 

“Unidos is exploring how to successfully provide pathways for the green and clean energy economy for BIPOC people, in ways that build sustainable, mutliracial worker power,” Emilia Gonzalez Avalos, executive director of Unidos MN, told Sahan Journal. 

Green job diversity, by the numbers 

A clean energy job can fall into a couple of different areas, explains Virginia Rutter, a community relations manager with Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. The work may involve cleaning up the power grid by transitioning to carbon-free fuel sources such as solar and wind; or making buildings, appliances, and transportation sources more energy efficient.

Energy efficiency is overwhelmingly the largest clean-energy employment sector in the state, according to the report, accounting for 75 percent of all jobs. The bulk of those jobs are in construction. Others include electricians, energy-efficiency auditors, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) technicians, and weatherization specialists. 

Renewable energy jobs are growing fast in Minnesota, the report found. More than 4,400 Minnesotans work in solar. Wind jobs grew by 8 percent in 2020, to 2,536 workers. Advanced transportation—the construction of electric and hybrid vehicles—also saw additions in 2020, with 3,252 Minnesotans now working in those fields. 

The makeup of the state’s clean energy workforce is more diverse than the workforce as a whole, the report found. Overall 86.4 percent of Minnesota workers are white, but that rate drops to 72.6 percent for clean energy workers. People identifying as Latino or Hispanic represent 17.5 percent of clean energy workers, compared to 5.4 percent of the total workforce. Black Minnesotans account for 6.9 percent of the green energy workforce, compared to 5.4 percent of state workers overall. 

Minnesota’s clean energy workforce is more diverse than the broader state employment base. Source: Clean Energy Economy Minnesota.

Those figures are more in line with recent 2020 Census results, which reported the share of white Minnesotans dropped from 83 percent in 2010 to 76.3 percent today. But industry experts say they haven’t seen that diversity in the field. 

“That has not been my experience,” Chris Duffrin, president of the Minnesota nonprofit Center for Energy and Environment, told Sahan Journal. 

Traditionally, the industry has been dominated by white men, Duffrin said, while the customer base of people seeking energy-efficiency improvements has become more diverse with shifting demographics.

Where clean energy jobs truly come up short is in gender diversity. The state’s overall workforce is 48 percent female, but just 27.4 percent of clean energy jobs are held by women, the report found. 

“Energy is the nexus of a bunch of fields that are historically male-dominated,” Rutter said, referring to construction, finance, engineering, and banking. 

Improving access to job training

Groups like Unidos are working to bring more job training centers to neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. 

Many union training centers sit outside the Minneapolis–St.Paul core, making access difficult for people of color. It’s critical, Gonzalez Avalos said, to make a pathway to future green energy careers for the working class people and communities of color that bear the brunt of pollution.

“It has to be culturally competent and grounded in multiracial solidarity,” she said. 

Robert Blake, founder and president of the solar company Solar Bear and the nonprofit Native Sun, is focusing on creating a green energy workforce on Minnesota’s tribal lands. As an enrolled member of Red Lake Nation, Blake wants to develop a Tribal Utilities Commission and establish energy independence in Indian country.

In 2020, he launched a nonprofit, Native Sun, which includes the Just Solar Workforce program to train tribal members for clean energy jobs. Blake, now a member of the Governor’s Workforce Development Board, started as a community solar salesperson in 2015 and has seen tremendous growth in the industry. Demand for solar installers, technicians, and electricians is high, he said, and more people are interested in getting involved in the industry for financial opportunities and the chance to be part of a broader transition. 

“I think what gets people interested in what we do is when we talk about the social and environmental benefits,” he said. 

In the Twin Cities, the Center for Energy and Environment is partnering with Xcel Energy to create workforce training programs that will emphasize recruiting people of color and giving them skills to enter fields such as energy auditing and home insulation and weatherization. 

The program, set to start in late 2021 or early next year, will begin by recruiting residents in east St. Paul and north Minneapolis, two of the most diverse sections of the Twin Cities. The programs will provide paid training to participants. A smaller group will be connected to paid internships after the basic training, but all should leave certified for in-demand work. 

The program is paid for by Xcel Energy through the state’s Conservation Improvement Program, which was recently updated in the 2021 Energy Conservation and Optimization (ECO) Act to require utilities to invest more in low-income communities. The program will partner with community groups to recruit participants within neighborhoods, including people who speak languages other than English at home, Duffrin said.  

 “We see this opportunity now to really intentionally diversify the energy workforce,” he said.  

Job versus career

The biggest area for growth in the clean energy industry exists in entry-level jobs such as energy auditors or solar installers. Those roles typically pay between $18–$22 per hour, a wage better than many retail jobs, but likely not enough to sustain a family, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economy cost of living calculator. 

Groups like Unidos want to see better pathways for people of color to move from entry-level work to managerial and skilled labor roles that can provide wealth-building opportunities. 

“We still have this disparity between white workers and workers of color,” Gonzalez Avalos said. 

Duffrin said a major goal of the workforce center with Xcel Energy is to put people on a path to jobs that pay upwards of $25 to $30 an hour, with solid benefits. There should be opportunities for those on the ground floor to move up, he said. 

The clean jobs report projects an 8 percent increase in the industry in 2021, and experts are optimistic that growth will represent just the beginning of what should be decades of new job opportunities. Making society carbon neutral to fend off the worst impacts of climate change will require a massive infrastructure investment and untold amounts of labor. 

“I’m not sure we’ve wrapped our heads around just how much this is going to grow,” Duffrin said. 

Andrew Hazzard covers climate issues for Sahan Journal. He has worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Mississippi and Minnesota. He is member of Society of Environmental Journalists. His work at Sahan...