In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the United States faces serious questions about the future of its economy and jobs market. Where will the good jobs of the future come from, how do we prepare the American workforce, and what is our strategy to maintain economic leadership in an increasingly competitive world?
A growing consensus suggests that cleantech will be one of our generation’s largest growth sectors. The global cleantech market is expected to surpass $1 trillion in value within the next few years, and a perfect storm of factors — from the inevitability of a carbon-constrained world, to skyrocketing global energy demand, to long-term oil price hikes — will drive global demand for clean-energy technologies.
That is why the national debate about global cleantech competitiveness is so important, sparked by the rapid entry of China and other nations. My colleagues and I recently contributed to the discussion with “Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant,” a large report providing the first comprehensive analysis of competitive positions among the U.S. and key Asian challengers. In order to compete, we found, “U.S. energy policy must include large, direct, and coordinated investments in clean-technology R&D, manufacturing, deployment, and infrastructure.”
But even if the United States adopts a real industrial policy for clean energy, there is little evidence that our workforce is skilled enough to compete. Unfortunately, according to the Department of Energy, “The U.S. ranks behind other major nations in making the transitions required to educate students for emerging energy trades, research efforts and other professions to support the future energy technology mix.”
A competitive energy workforce requires much more than technicians and building retrofitters. Scientists, engineers, high-tech entrepreneurs, and advanced manufacturers will play a critical role, just as they have in strategic sectors like infotech, aerospace, and biotech. The federal government has started to address the need for green technician and efficiency retrofit training, such as with the Green Jobs Act, but it has not implemented an education strategy to keep the U.S. at the leading edge of energy science, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Unfortunately, the majority of our colleges and universities lack degree programs focused on energy, and the U.S. power engineering education system is on the decline. Over the next five years, 45 percent of electric utility engineers will be eligible for retirement, along with 40 percent of key power engineering faculty at U.S. universities, according to a report by IEEE. “Engineering workforce shortages are already occurring,” the report concludes. “We need more electrical engineers to solve industry challenges, and to build the 21st century electric power grid … Meeting these needs requires long-term investment now.”
Meanwhile, other countries are producing a substantially larger portion of scientists, engineers, and researchers that will benefit their cleantech industries. Science and engineering make up only about one-third of U.S. bachelor’s degrees, compared to 63 percent in Japan, 53 percent in China, and 51 percent in Singapore, and the number of Chinese researchers is now on par with the United States (though some have pointed out that the quality of these graduates and researchers is not always comparable). “Over time,” stated a recent report by the National Science Board, “the United States has fallen from one of the top countries in terms of its ratio of natural science and engineering degrees to the college-age population to near the bottom of the 23 countries for which data are available.”
The energy workforce deficit and STEM education gap will substantially limit the nation’s ability to lead the cleantech industry and accelerate clean energy development. As Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman put it, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be ‘education.’” In order to succeed in the cleantech industry, the U.S. must develop an energy education strategy to develop tens of thousands of advanced energy scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, as well as technicians.
Recognizing these trends, several experts have called for federal programs to develop our advanced energy workforce. In April 2009, President Obama took up these recommendations by announcing the first nationwide initiative to inspire and train young Americans “to tackle the single most important challenge of their generation — the need to develop cheap, abundant, clean energy, and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy.”
The proposal, called RE-ENERGYSE (Regaining our Energy Science and Engineering Edge), is part of the administration’s 2011 budget request, which will be considered by Congress in the months ahead. With oversight from the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation, it would educate thousands of clean-energy scientists and engineers, beginning with $74 million for energy-related programs at universities, community and technical colleges and K-12 schools, with the largest component focusing on higher education.
RE-ENERGYSE is an important step toward creating a competitive U.S. clean-energy workforce — that is why thousands of students and dozens of professional associations want it to succeed, and that is why Congress should fund it at the full budget request. Beyond RE-ENERGYSE, the federal government should work to expand these programs into a clean-energy education strategy on par with the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which helped reposition the U.S. in the space race and achieve revolutions in information technology.
The global clean-energy race represents one of the greatest challenges for American leadership in a generation, and now is a critical moment. If we do not immediately implement a national strategy for energy leadership — including smart investments to educate the energy generation — we will miss a historic economic opportunity. American students are willing to rise to this national challenge, and we need the support of our government to succeed.