The clean energy industry is “maturing” in Vermont, according to officials, but it’s also being affected by the state’s overall struggle to attract workers.
The 2019 Vermont Clean Energy Report was released Monday by the Department of Public Service (DPS). It was written by BW Research Partnership Inc., under commission from the Clean Energy Development Fund, which is part of DPS.
Andrew Perchlik, director of the Clean Energy Development Fund, said Monday the partnership surveyed companies in the clean energy industry and consulted with numerous state agencies for its data.
Among the report’s findings are that Vermont has the highest rate of per capita clean energy employment at 5.7%. And while the clean energy industry intends to grow its workforce in 2019 by 5%, it may have trouble doing so.
“Employers in the clean energy industry are optimistic about Vermont’s 2019 workforce growth,” reads the report, which says a 5% increase would mean about 1,000 workers. “However, based upon the difficulties with hiring cited by employers again this year, doing so may prove to be a challenge.”
Vermont’s unemployment rate in April was 2.2%, said Mat Barewicz, labor market information director of the Vermont Department of Labor. That’s the lowest it’s been since 1976, when modern methods of tracking the rate were implemented, he said. The national average was 3.6% for April and May.
It’s a commonly held belief that the lower the unemployment rate is, the better things are, but Barewicz said this isn’t necessarily the case. An extremely low unemployment rate indicates not so much an abundance of jobs, but a decline in workers. Barewicz said it’s believed that a 5% rate is best, leaving a balance between workers wanting jobs and employers having enough labor to grow.
Barewicz said with rates at this level, some companies may find it difficult to not only grow, but remain the same size, as it’s harder to replace retiring workers or ones leaving the area.
The Clean Energy Report looks at the state of the clean energy industry, but each report has explored or expanded on a different area, said Perchlik.
“This year, we looked at workforce development,” he said, in part because many other agencies in Vermont were having similar conversations about the unemployment rate.
Perchlik said the clean energy industry’s workforce woes mirror the challenges faced by every other industry in Vermont. He said 47% of clean energy employers reported their biggest problem with labor is that applicants lack the necessary qualifications, skills and training. He said many of the open jobs are technical in nature and require more specialized skills. Employers also say they’re having trouble finding people with even basic work skills, according to Perchlik.
Ken Jones, economic research analyst for the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said Monday the state has essentially two approaches to the workforce problem: using the Vermont Talent Pipeline Management program to boost the skills of workers already here, and the Remote Worker Grant Program, the latter of which was expanded by the Legislature this year.
The Clean Energy Report wasn’t all about struggles. The number of clean energy establishments grew by 2% over last year to 3,678. The industry has a total of 18,900 workers, about 6% of all workers in the state, according to the report’s key findings.
What’s surprising about the data is the “maturity” of the workforce, said Perchlik. By that he means the number of full-time workers, which grew to 14,500 since 2017, when it was at 12,000.
Perchlik said that in years past, many contractors who reported working in the clean energy field often had other contracting work not related to clean energy. Demand in that field has grown, he said, to where many now work exclusively in clean energy.
He said the annual Clean Energy Reports are used by many people, legislators among them. He said he’s not currently worried that the workforce issues will derail the state’s renewable energy goals, but if the problem persists into the future, it may slow things down some.
The current and past reports can be found at https://bit.ly/2Wt5Dbd.