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There’s nothing just about a transition without a job

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The Biden administration has made a transition to clean energy the lynchpin of both its climate and economic recovery plans. In his first week in office, President Biden promised, “A key plank of our Build Back Better Recovery Plan is building a modern, resilient climate infrastructure and clean energy future that will create millions of good-paying union jobs.” 

But here’s the challenge: There’s a big difference in America between having a good job and being trained for a good job. The latter often doesn’t result in the former.

As authors of the MIT Roosevelt Project’s “Energy Workforce in the 21st Century,” we reviewed how federal policy in the early 1970’s abandoned the U.S. government’s responsibility to provide unemployed Americans with a job and switched to offering Americans the opportunity for job training. Finding that job suddenly became the individual’s responsibility. 

When American troops came home from World War II, our collective sense of social responsibility was very different. As originally written, the Employment Act of 1946 required the federal government to guarantee employment to any American willing and able to work. But the legislation was watered down and became more an aspiration than a guarantee. 

The last real effort at a federal jobs program was the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978. The Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act required the federal government to intervene in high unemployment labor markets by becoming the employer of last resort if unemployment exceeded 3 percent of the workforce over age 20.

Of course, the good intentions of Humphrey-Hawkins were immediately put on the shelf. Congress never appropriated funding to realize the dream of giving every American the right to a job. Instead, multiple job training programs were enacted, including the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1992, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and, the latest, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014.

But access to training has turned out to be a poor substitute for an actual job. In the years since Humphrey-Hawkins was shelved, the cyclical swings of unemployment, accompanied by the significant growth of women in the American workforce, have concealed the steady rise in discouraged workers, particularly men, who have dropped out of the labor force.  

In 1978, the year that Humphrey-Hawkins was passed, the labor force participation rate of men over the age of 20 was 80 percent. That same year women’s participation stood at 50 percent. At the end of 2019, before the pandemic, with record low unemployment, male workforce participation had fallen to 71 percent. Surprisingly, women’s workforce participation peaked in 2008 at 61 percent and declined steadily to the end of 2019 at 59 percent. Our overall labor force participation rates were at 63 percent, no different than 1978. And as one might guess, these figures diverge dramatically when broken down by race and ethnicity. 

The good news about the investments necessary to decarbonize the economy is that they provide our country with the tools necessary to re-employ many Americans. More importantly, they provide us with the opportunity to redesign the longer-term solutions to chronic underemployment, such as linking training to actual jobs.  

The de-industrialization of America during the 1980’s and 1990’s, driven by automation and globalization, underscored the social cost to Americans who could not find a job. It also highlighted how wealth inequality and wage disparity take root in an economy where large numbers of workers are pushed out of the labor market. Successive training legislation did not provide the solution.

The opportunity presented by the energy transition is that the loss of employment in one sector of the economy can now be offset simultaneously by the job-creating investments required in others. While some jobs are going away, others are being created. Not that there won’t be challenges. For instance, more than 2.1 million jobs in energy intensive manufacturing and in fossil fuel production and transmission and their use for electricity generation are concentrated in just 15 states. To complicate matters, only two of these states have competitive renewable energy resources.

Nonetheless, the energy transition provides us with several investment solutions that create jobs in the same geographies that are losing them. But it can’t be a cookie cutter approach. Solutions must be regionally specific. The path forward in the Tri-State region of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio – home to energy intensive industries such as steel, aluminum and chemicals but poor renewable energy resources – must be different than in the sun-drenched Southwest. 

In the Tri-State region, a government-sponsored carbon capture and storage infrastructure project, combined with hydrogen production from the natural gas resources of the region, could provide access to “good union jobs” through construction apprenticeship programs, while preserving the core of energy intensive industries in steel, aluminum and chemicals and also decarbonizing the economy.

We can’t simply train people for jobs if we aren’t also willing to make the investments. Training someone to build infrastructure that we won’t finance fixes neither the climate nor the economy. The last 40 years have taught us these two things: There’s nothing just about a transition without a job. And we need both jobs and training to build a community.

David Foster is a visiting scholar at M.I.T. and a distinguished associate at the Energy Futures Initiative. He previously served as a senior adviser to the Office of the Secretary at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration. Sade Nabahe is a research assistant for the MIT-Harvard Roosevelt Project. Her research focuses on U.S. energy workforce issues in the face of a deep decarbonized economy and advanced technological change.

Tags Build Back Better plan Green job Job Training Partnership Act Joe Biden Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Workforce Investment Act

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