UC Berkeley Labor Center finds diversity in renewable energy workforce

Simran Sarin/Staff

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UC Berkeley Labor Center’s Green Economy Program found that more than half of entry-level laborers at California renewable energy power plants were people of color, according to its study released Aug. 31.

The Labor Center conducts research on issues related to labor and employment. The report found racial and ethnic diversity within unions for electricians, ironworkers and operating engineers at the power plants.

The report evaluated state-certified apprenticeship programs and focused on the racial, ethnic and gender breakdown for ironworker, electrician and operating engineer unions, according to the Labor Center’s press release.

“Apprenticeship programs are a key driver of progress here,”  said Robert Collier, research and policy specialist at the Labor Center. “California is a leader, not just on climate change, but on ensuring that all Californians participate in the benefits.”

Collier added that the three-to-five-year programs teach workers complex technical skills that pay off through middle-class wage earnings and benefits.

Among the results, the study showed that Latinos — a little more than one-third of the statewide workforce — made up 53 percent of iron workers, 34 percent of electrical workers and 23 percent of operating engineers.

Black laborers, who make up 6 percent of the statewide labor force, made up 4 percent of new apprentice electricians, 6 percent of ironworkers and 9 percent of operating engineers, according to the report.

“We know who gets the bad jobs in our economy: people of color and immigrants. Who’s getting the good jobs?” said Carol Zabin, a co-author of the report. “(The) older, white, privileged working class.”

The percentage of veteran workers in these apprenticeship programs was found to be higher than in the state’s workforce as a whole.

Collier said garnering diversity in this workforce was not an automatic process. The representation of minorities is largely a result of project labor agreements that were required for the majority of the power plants. These requirements include higher wages and full benefits for their workers.

According to Zabin, discussion of job equity is necessary to consider in the debate surrounding climate change policy — she said that in addressing climate change, the state should not make inequality worse.

“If we can influence how these new industries can be developed,” said Zabin. “(We can) create pathways into those jobs for folks who have been discriminated against.”

Policymakers must continue to consider how the workforce will be impacted, according to Zabin, as California moves from fossil fuels to more renewable energies. According to the Labor Center’s press release, Senate Bill SB-100, if passed, will set a statewide goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

“If SB-100 is approved, that would drive further growth construction, more jobs and more openings in apprenticeship programs,” Collier said. “And in turn, (it can) push California forward on its path to broaden access to middle-class jobs while it fights climate change.”

Contact Ahna Straube at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @akstraube.