The United States is failing to produce the trained and educated workforce needed for the demands of the future of electricity generation and transmission, according to a study last fall by the National Commission on Energy Policy.

According to the commission, a private-sector endeavor founded in 2002 and funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the “nation’s educational infrastructure must be improved and realigned to produce the next generation of professionals needed” to lead a transformation of the electrical generation and distribution systems to cope with the demands for global warming gas reductions and clean energy investments.

This task is urgent, says the task force, chaired by Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin CEO, and Pete Domenici, former New Mexico Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The U.S. is “dangerously close to failing” in the task of developing new energy professionals, the group concludes. The U.S., the report argues, “is facing a critical shortage of trained professionals to maintain the existing power system and design, build, and operate the future electric power system.”

The retirement of the baby boomer generation over the next two decades makes the replacement issue more critical, especially as it is the largest cohort of retirees the U.S. has yet seen. Companies will need to replace many of those skilled and experienced workers.

Human resources, says the national commission report, are the key to keeping the U.S. electric system working. “The ability to maintain a highly reliable, economically affordable electric power system while modernizing the nation’s generating infrastructure to support an advanced, low-carbon portfolio is in serious jeopardy,” says the report. It takes people, not technology, to do that.

The tools to define and attract the needed workforce today and in the future are inadequate, says the task force report. An example is the bogus notion of “green jobs,” offered as a justification for many policies that aim to reduce global warming. The claim is that these policies will generate “green” jobs in excess of the jobs lost by reductions in use of fossil fuels. That doesn’t stand up to analysis.

The report observes that “a universally accepted definition of what constitutes a green job does not exist. Organizations of all types tend to attach the ‘green’ label when describing what they support and promote, which highlights the ambiguity in using the term.” In other words, the concept of “green jobs” has no meaning.

If a line worker builds a connection from a wind farm to the grid, is that a green job? What if that same line worker were working to connect a new coal-fired power plant to the grid, and was shifted to the wind interconnection. Which job is “green?” The task force notes that “the skills needed to perform what many think of as a green job are often the same or very similar to traditional energy-related jobs.”

The definition and advocacy of green jobs is a distraction, the report argues. More important are the real factors facing the electric power workforce. That workforce, says the task force, “is aging and will need to be replaced. Facing a wave of retirements over the next decade, the electric power industry will need to expand hiring and training programs just to maintain the level of qualified workers required to operate existing facilities.”

New workers will be needed to fill as many as a third of the current 400,000 electric power jobs by 2013—just three years into the future. The study finds that some 58,000 skilled craft workers will be eligible for retirement by 2013 as well as 11,000 engineers.

Lining up replacements is difficult, according to the task force. “Companies are finding that U.S. students are not graduating at the same rates, in the relevant fields, and with the qualifications as in the past.” The future will require workers with “new design, construction, operation, and maintenance skills.”

But if those workers are not available, “workforce bottlenecks could slow the transition to a low-carbon economy regardless of the commercial readiness of the underlying technologies.” That could mean damage to “U.S. global competitiveness.” So it doesn’t matter how green wind plants are, if you can’t build them or interconnect them because workers aren’t available for the tasks.

What to do? The task force offers five recommendations. These are, without any judgment as to political practicality:

  • More federal money “to identify policy uncertainties that are currently delaying, or have the potential to delay, the deployment of new generating assets and infrastructure.”
  • Improved collection of energy workforce data “to facilitate future efforts to measure progress and identify emerging workforce needs.”
  • Federal programs to “develop a repository of best practices for electric sector job training that is widely accessible, transparently managed, and maintained by a public entity.”
  • Federal funds for students who “wish to pursue energy-related technical and professional training or retraining and to students interested in pursuing post-secondary degrees in engineering and other energy-related technical fields.”
  • “Revitalizing” math and science skills among U.S. students, particularly the K-12 population, presumably (without a direct statement) using federal funds, along with subsidies for “adults who wish to enter the energy workforce, and teachers and instructors.”

Are these recommendations practical today? It’s hard to believe that any of the recommendations that require significant dollars are likely to happen, however well thought-out. There is little appetite in Congress for new spending programs, unless a powerful advocate can step up to shepherd the programs through the political process. So far, that super-power person isn’t obviously identifiable.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER magazine.