Over the past century, workforce development policies have attempted to improve our ability to meet individual needs as well as strengthening the economy, enabling more positive outcomes for jobseekers and employers. However, systemic inequities and structural barriers have impeded true progress and brought to light the need to design policies for workforce equity. This approach recognizes each person’s ability to access, gain, and maintain employment and appreciates the workforce’s diverse set of social and personal circumstances.
One of the U.S. government’s first publicly supported workforce development programs was enabled by the Wagner-Peyser Act of 1933, which built on employment programs for soldiers returning from war. Unfortunately, the services that resulted from this legislation did not foster cross sector relationships and actively excluded large portions of the workforce.
In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) aimed to eradicate systemic barriers by actively directing resources to where they were needed most. Considered the first U.S. policy that focused an explicit equity lens on workforce development, the EOA recognized and addressed the root of unemployment through a framework that expanded opportunity not only through employment policies, but also anti-poverty, health, and education policies. Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and Head Start were a part of the EOA and have endured for decades because they embrace the intersectionality of social and economic experiences.
Over time, U.S. workforce development policy has become increasingly decentralized, relying more on states and communities to develop and implement solutions. As a result, there is a strong need for apprenticeships, on-the-job training and upskilling programs that build stronger connectivity among employers, trainers and community organizations centered on localized economic equity. The federal Justice40 Initiative offers a framework to measure and account for who benefits from workforce development programs related to climate, environment, clean energy, clean transportation, housing, and water infrastructure.
In the clean energy sector, a decade of growth is certain due to the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. These bills will be rolling out programs like the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, Energy Auditor Training Grant Program, Career Skills Training Program, and Innovative Water Infrastructure Workforce Development Grant Program for several years. And knowing that clean energy job growth has grown reliably year after year for several years, it is highly likely that there will be increasing demand for high-quality, clean energy jobs. In Pennsylvania, the solar industry is expected to increase threefold over the next five years, and the Whole-Home Repairs Program will drive demand for energy efficiency services from home energy professionals like insulation workers, HVAC mechanics, installers and technicians. Pennsylvania could also become a clean energy manufacturing hub by taking advantage of the Qualifying Advanced Energy Project Credits. All of these programs offer an opportunity to build trust and relationships with communities of people who have historically been disadvantaged, and ensure open positions are filled by individuals who are most impacted by our current inequitable economic models.
Although these programs will increase the availability of jobs in the clean energy sector, implementation that can drive an equity-centered workforce development program is yet to be seen. Unfortunately, racial disparities exist in almost every measure of economic well-being and traditional pathways to clean energy careers may not be accessible to all, so how should we design workforce development policy for the unemployed, underemployed, underrepresented and under-resourced communities to ensure advancement and self-determined pathways to prosperity?
Workforce development policy must center on equity. This means recognizing the need for intersectional policy that intentionally addresses the need for equitable employment outcomes and job quality, not just opportunities. Policies that create connections between community and employer networks ensure that investments create a new engine of economic power that is inclusive and harnessed to correct historic inequities in wealth building and opportunity.