The clean power industry is experiencing phenomenal growth. In fact, jobs in wind and solar are among the fastest-growing across the nation according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the renewable energy industry is not immune to the same problem plaguing every other industry across the country: finding and keeping skilled workers. In North Carolina, however, an apprenticeship program designed to secure the future of renewable energy’s workforce continues to grow.
Now in its third year, the North Carolina Clean Energy Youth Apprenticeship Program started with two simple goals. First, to inspire young people across the state to consider and work toward careers in renewable energy. Second, to give them the skills they would actually need to do the work. The program was spearheaded by Balu Gokaraju, an associate professor at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A&T). Speaking about the program’s founding, Gokaraju explained:
“We saw that North Carolina could be one of the frontrunners of changing the economy toward clean energy. We wanted to start to build the skills needed for [the] workforce.”
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When the program was founded in 2020, it served only nine students. Last year, the program took on 31 apprentices. Of these 31 apprentices, 93 percent were minorities and 69 percent were women. These statistics are especially astounding compared to reports from the nonprofit E2 that show only 8.5 percent of North Carolina’s clean energy workforce are Black and less than 30 percent are women.
This year, the program is set to double as 60 students from colleges and high schools across eight counties participate. And there is no end in sight for program growth. Gokaraju has his sights set on expanding to 17 counties with 1,000 students in the next four years, noting, “We have a great framework of bringing the whole state together.”
What does the practical day-to-day of being an apprentice look like? The simple answer: It varies greatly. However, apprenticeships typically start with classroom education and lead directly into on-the-job training. Each student must be able to prove they are competent and ready to be on job sites.
The program started with A&T and Gokaraju, but it has since gained many partners, as well as the involvement of North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper. Support from Governor Cooper has led to these apprenticeships becoming officially registered with the state. While that might sound like a red flag to those of us who prefer limited government, what it means practically is that students are eligible for more community college grants, making this career path more attainable than ever.
There may be no better summary of this program’s importance than words from Strata Solar, one of the first employers of students who went through the apprenticeship: “Our hope is that this program will be used as a model for other counties and states to increase the number of qualified clean energy professionals. This is exceptionally crucial as states advance clean energy legislation [and] as our industry continues to grow.”
Kelvey Vander Hart is a native Iowan, a member of the American Conservation Coalition, and a communications specialist at Reason Foundation.