Protecting Workers from Extreme Heat through an Energy-efficient Workplace Cooling Transformation

Extreme heat is a growing threat to the health and productivity of U.S. workers and businesses. There is a high-impact opportunity to pioneer innovations in energy-efficient worker-centric cooling to protect workers from the growing heat while reducing the costs to businesses to install protections. With the impending Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standard, the federal government should ensure that businesses have the necessary support to establish and maintain the infrastructure needed for existing and upcoming worker heat protection requirements while realizing economic, disaster resilience, and climate co-benefits. To achieve this goal, an Executive Order should form a multiagency working group that coordinates federal government and nongovernment partners to define a new building design approach that integrates both worker health and energy-efficiency considerations. The working group should establish roles and a process for coordinating and identifying leaders and funding approaches to advance a policy roadmap to accelerate, scale up, and evaluate equitable deployment and maintenance of energy-efficient worker-centric cooling. This plan presents a unique and timely opportunity to build upon existing national clean energy, climate, and infrastructure commitments and goals to ensure a healthier, more productive, resilient, and sustainable workforce.

Challenge and Opportunity

U.S. workers and businesses face a growing threat of illness, death, and reduced work productivity from extreme heat exposure. There were 436 work-related heat deaths recorded in the U.S. from 2011 to 2021. Workplace heat exposure is linked to heat illnesses, traumatic injuries, and reduced work productivity among otherwise healthy workers, costing the nation an estimated $100 billion each year in lost economic activity. Workers exposed to high heat include those in outdoor occupations in agriculture and construction and those working in hot manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, and food services environments. Spikes in worker heat illness have occurred during recent extreme heat events, such as the “heat dome” event of 2021, which are more likely to occur with climate change. Disproportionately exposed workers and small businesses often do not have the resources or capacity to implement, improve, or maintain existing workplace cooling infrastructure, thus increasing heat exposure inequities.

An energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation is needed to ensure businesses have the support required to comply with existing state heat rules and upcoming federal workplace heat prevention requirements. Several states—California, Colorado, Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington—have already adopted occupational indoor and/or outdoor heat exposure rules to protect workers from heat stress. OSHA is in the process of developing a national workplace heat standard. In addition to requirements for worker rest breaks, training, and hydration, OSHA is considering requirements for employers to implement protections when the measured heat index is 80°F or higher, including engineering controls such as air-conditioned cool-down areas. 

Using energy-efficient active or passive cooling systems and building designs in workplaces has numerous benefits. Cooling the environment is one of the most effective methods for reducing the risk of heat illness. Energy-efficient cooling reduces electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional systems. Energy-efficient buildings cost less to operate, allowing greater productivity at lower cost and reduced fossil fuel use and community air pollution. Energy-efficient cooling also decreases the amount of electricity on the grid at one time, reducing the chances of blackouts during extreme weather events. 

We must develop a new approach to building standards – energy-efficient, worker-centric cooling – that integrates both worker health and energy-efficiency considerations. Existing building-centric approaches that blanket-cool entire buildings to the same fixed temperature are energy inefficient and can lead to overcooling of unoccupied areas and increased costs. The urgent need for energy-efficient worker-centric cooling standards is highlighted, for example, by the 300–900 million ft2 per quarter rate of U.S. warehouse space under construction, and a growing warehouse workforce, in recent years.

There is a gap in standards that address both civilian worker health and energy-efficient cooling simultaneously. The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has incorporated a worker-centric approach in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program. This approach includes pilot credits for Prevention through Design (PtD), which aims to minimize risks to workers by integrating safety measures into building design and redesign. One such example is ensuring roof features, such as vegetated roofs and solar panel installations, are arranged to minimize hazards like falls for maintenance personnel. However, there are no specific PtD standards or LEED credits for energy-efficient cooling approaches that address worker heat hazards. For example, there are no specific standards that incorporate the proximity of indoor cool-down areas to hot work areas, targeted cooling of certain work areas, or mobile outdoor cooling stations that leverage solar and electrochemical technology.

Although there are several potential mechanisms of support for energy-efficient cooling infrastructure for commercial buildings and small businesses, there is no program to assist employers and small businesses in integrating these technologies into worker-centric cooling infrastructure designs. Under the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 (IRA), tax deductions are available through Internal Revenue Code (IRC) 179D for building owners to install or retrofit equipment aimed at improving energy efficiency, including HVAC systems such as heat pumps and building envelope improvements to “heat-proof” or weatherize structures. However, tax credits may be difficult to access and may not provide a sufficient degree of immediate support for small business owners struggling with inflation costs. While the Biden-Harris Administration has also launched a $14 billion National Clean Investment Fund that will provide Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants to small businesses for deploying clean technology projects, there are no earmarked funds for workplace solutions focused on energy-efficient cooling or resilience to extreme heat events that integrate worker health considerations. Current U.S. Small Business Administration efforts focus primarily on supporting small businesses with disaster recovery rather than resilience.

Effective cross-agency coordination is needed to accomplish an energy-efficient cooling transformation in U.S. workplaces, support small businesses, and contribute to the Healthy People 2030 goal of reducing workplace deaths. Coordination among existing agencies and external partners to address gaps in energy-efficient cooling technology, worker-centric designs, and heat-specific PtD building approaches will support a healthier, more productive, and sustainable U.S. workforce.

Plan of Action

Transforming workplace infrastructure to support a healthy, productive, and sustainable U.S. workforce against extreme heat requires coordination across multiple federal agencies. This plan offers the first steps in developing a structure for coordination, defining the approach, developing a roadmap for future actions, and ultimately catalyzing and piloting innovations and implementing and evaluating solutions.

This plan is guided by the following principles:

Following an executive order from the President, the Office of Management and Budget should convene a multiagency working group to develop a plan for coordination and to outline a roadmap toward an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation for a healthy, productive, and sustainable workforce. The working group should:

Recommendation 1. Be chaired by an agency that has experience in convening multisectoral collaborations and advocating for equitable health outcomes, such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Climate Change and Health Equity. The inclusion of representatives from the following agencies and offices should be considered:

Recommendation 2. Define roles and develop a plan to enhance coordination with public and private partners in developing and evaluating evidence-based worker-centric cooling infrastructure technologies and building designs. Partners should include those that develop or promote voluntary standards and guidelines for:

Recommendation 3. Establish a consensus definition of energy-efficient worker-centric cooling using a combination of established metrics, including:

Recommendation 4. Outline existing pathways to support an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation, including: 

Recommendation 5. Articulate follow-on initiatives and identify leaders and potential funding approaches to advance the roadmap of policies to accelerate, scale up, and evaluate equitable deployment, maintenance, and evaluation of worker-centric energy-efficient cooling infrastructure. Policies considerations include:

Funding for agencies to work together to develop and implement approaches to track progress toward an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation by combining data sources.

Conclusion

Given the growing threat to U.S. workers and businesses posed by illness, death, and reduced work productivity from increasing heat exposure, it is imperative to catalyze an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation. There is currently a unique and timely opportunity to build upon national clean energy, climate, and infrastructure commitments and goals to address gaps in energy-efficient worker-centric cooling technology and PtD building standards. The proposed plan will incorporate high-level support, provide infrastructure for coordination among government agencies and nongovernmental partners, define the approach, and lay the groundwork for stimulating innovations in promising worker-centric cooling technologies and designs. This plan will produce a roadmap for an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation that will support businesses in establishing the infrastructure needed for existing and upcoming workplace heat prevention requirements. The approach will build upon existing occupational health equity initiatives to reduce the risk of heat health effects for workers disproportionately affected by heat and small businesses. This initiative will ensure a healthier, more productive, and sustainable workforce with minimal cost and a substantial potential return on investment.

This idea of merit originated from our Extreme Heat Ideas Challenge. Scientific and technical experts across disciplines worked with FAS to develop potential solutions in various realms: infrastructure and the built environment, workforce safety and development, public health, food security and resilience, emergency planning and response, and data indices. Review ideas to combat extreme heat here.

Frequently Asked Questions
Why not just wait until a federal occupational heat rule is adopted to pursue an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation? Why is technology part of the solution?

Under federal OSHA standards for employers, workplaces are currently only required to address workplace heat if it is causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees. This OSHA “General Duty Clause” requirement is insufficient, as workers experience negative effects from workplace heat exposure — ranging from heat illness to death. OSHA is in the process of developing a workplace heat standard that considers engineering controls, such as workplace cooling, along with other requirements related to worker breaks, training, and hydration. Workplace cooling is a proposed federal rule element and is already relevant for U.S. states with indoor workplace heat regulations. Energy-efficient workplace cooling infrastructure transitions do not happen overnight. Investment now is important for states with existing heat rules and to prepare for the future state and/or federal heat rules.

Why not just focus on energy-efficient cooling of homes?

Home cooling only partially addresses extreme heat health risks because many working-age adults spend half of their waking hours during the workweek at work. Further, increased energy-efficiency in the industrial sector, which currently accounts for 30% of U.S. greenhouse emissions, can reduce pollution in surrounding communities and blackout risk during extreme weather events.

Why not just direct business owners to existing incentives and grants?

Existing incentives and grants (e.g., IRA tax deductions for building owner energy-efficient installation or retrofitting, such as IRA 13303; IRC 179D; National Clean Investment Fund grants through EPA to small businesses deploying clean technology projects; and SBA Office of Disaster Recovery and Resilience loans) do not explicitly incorporate worker-centric designs that achieve climate, energy-efficiency, and worker health goals simultaneously. Further, tax deductions and grant programs provide short- and medium-term financial support for energy-efficient workplace cooling transitions. Without a roadmap to address explicit coordination, simplification in processes, and accessibility of incentives, small business owners may be unable to take advantage of these incentives.

What types of data sources could be considered for tracking progress toward an energy-efficient workplace cooling transformation?

Examples of data sources that could be considered are:


What would the workplace cooling transformation cost?
Costs for the formative steps of the transformation described in this brief would use existing agency resources and would not require additional congressional appropriations. As the working group develops the roadmap of future policies, the group can make recommendations for additional resources as part of agency annual budget cycles or congressional appropriations.

Adopting Evidence-Based Heat Stress Management Strategies in the Workplace to Enhance Climate Equity

Millions of workers are subjected to the dangers of extreme heat that increase their risk of heat-related illnesses and fatalities. Due to personal, social, and workplace vulnerabilities, workers are at even greater risk, particularly women, people who are Black or Brown, those who facing low-income challenges, and those employed by small businesses. With no mandated federal heat stress standard, there is no federal mechanism to ensure the adoption of appropriate heat stress prevention strategies and emergency procedures to protect vulnerable workers. 

Now is an opportune time to introduce a federal program to champion climate equity and justice in the workplace by assisting employers’ implementation of evidence-based heat stress management strategies and heat illness emergency procedures, particularly targeting underserved working populations who labor in the heat. This program should be supported by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with university and nonprofit partners, and funded through a private or public partnership. This effort will act on the principles of employer social responsibility, best practice recognition, increased resource allocation to vulnerable working groups, third-party auditing, and a non-retaliation reporting mechanism. This policy action, across multiple stakeholders, will proactively address the challenges posed by extreme heat and work toward creating safer, more equitable working environments for all.

Challenge and Opportunity

The average global surface temperature in 2023 was 2.12ºF above the 20th century average, resulting in Earth’s warmest year on record. Extreme temperatures will continue to rise as the frequency, intensity, and duration of heat waves increase due to climate change. Climate change is a major public health priority that places workers who perform physical labor in the heat at higher risk, due to frequent prolonged, heavy physical exertion, layers of personal protective clothing, and exposure to environmental heat stress. This combination of factors exacerbates the level of heat stress placed on the body, leading to heat-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. While the Biden Administration has initiated federal action to establish a mandated heat standard, the bureaucratic process is slow, averaging around eight years. Congress is also working on addressing this issue through the consideration of a bill for the adoption of an emergency temporary standard. Although it offers a quicker solution, it has a limited life span of approximately six months. Moreover, in anticipation of mandating a federal heat stress standard, there is limited infrastructure to support the adoption of evidence-based heat stress management strategies to protect workers in high-temperature environments. The current enforcement solution, OSHA’s National Emphasis Program on outdoor and indoor heat hazards, has several limitations, include such as a vague definition of noncompliant following heat hazard inspection, and uses assessment tools such as Heat Index, which is not considered “best practice.” 

To address these limitations, key stakeholders from academic settings, large research institutes, and nonprofit organizations have developed evidence-based best practices to protect vulnerable workers from extreme heat. Unfortunately, there is no system in place to determine how well companies are prepared for extreme heat. The urgency of adopting evidence-based heat stress management strategies across industries cannot be overstated, as heat-related injuries and fatalities are entirely preventable with the implementation of appropriate prevention strategies and emergency procedures.

There is a critical opportunity to champion climate equity and justice to safeguard laborers from the dangers of extreme heat. Laborers from vulnerable demographics who engage in physical work in the heat are disproportionately affected and are often not protected under evidence-based heat stress management practices by their employers. Workers with personal (e.g., age, race/ethnicity, disease status) and social (e.g., employment type, income status) vulnerabilities are exploited by working in hot environments with limited heat stress prevention strategies available to them. This form of labor exploitation during periods of high heat exposure leaves millions of U.S. workers more vulnerable to preventable heat-related injuries and fatalities. 

Small businesses and other companies with limited resources are also less equipped to protect their workforce or have the means to ensure their employees are working in safe environments in the heat. To fortify workplace resilience against extreme heat and climate change, it is imperative to equitably distribute resources for enforcing evidence-based heat policies in workplaces. Organizations with employees exposed to high temperatures must be held accountable for the effective implementation of these policies. Additionally, vulnerable workers frequently refrain from reporting unsafe conditions due to the fear of employer retaliation. Advocacy efforts become even more challenging as language barriers, food insecurity, and poverty exacerbate already dire working conditions.

The present moment presents an opportune time to introduce a program supported by occupational health and safety federal agencies. As evidence-based best practices have been developed to protect workers from extreme heat, there is no system in place to protect vulnerable working populations, allocate resources, and keep companies accountable by assessing their current heat stress management practices. OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are key stakeholder organizations to initiate a federal response to address the lack of adoption of heat stress management policies. However, these entities often prioritize multiple projects simultaneously, are understaffed, and benefit from partnerships with universities and nonprofits. Therefore, a cooperative approach with governing like OSHA and universities/nonprofit organizations is the appropriate strategy to create a program that promotes the enforcement of evidence-based heat protection strategies (i.e., education, hydration, heat acclimatization, environmental monitoring, physiological monitoring) at the organizational level. This approach also provides under-resourced businesses with access to basic heat protection equipment and establishes a mechanism for employees to report unsafe working conditions without fear of retaliation. This program draws inspiration from the success of the Fair Food Program, a Corporate Social Responsibility model that promotes accountability among growers, buyers, and retailers. 

This comprehensive program will support all organizations that employ workers who perform physical work in the heat, such as construction, utilities, agriculture, oil, and gas. This program will facilitate employer accountability, social responsibility, increased resource allocation, third-party auditing, and a non-retaliation reporting system. 

Plan of Action

The development and implementation of this federal program, the Occupational Heat Resiliency Program (OHRP), will require a public-private partnership between OSHA, universities, and nonprofit partners. This partnership model draws inspiration from the successful collaborative partnerships between OSHA and other partners to protect the workforce against other occupational hazards. The OHRP will promote the adoption of evidence-based heat stress management practices by targeting employers with workplaces that experience high heat exposure and/or have a large population of laborers working in the heat who are classified as vulnerable workers. The establishment of OHRP will require funding through cooperative agreements, such as the OSHA Strategic Partnership Program (OSPP). To achieve the program’s objectives, both OSHA and its partners will commit their knowledge and resources to support the program.

The program will rely on the following principles to achieve this objective:

  1. Employer accountability and best practice recognition:
  1. Climate equity through increased resource allocation:
  1. Safer work environments through third-party auditing and a non-retaliation reporting system:

The program will be led by teams composed of OSHA representatives and university/nonprofit partners that will meet virtually regularly to ensure the goals of each principle are being met and to address any partnership issues that may arise.

Conclusion

The escalating challenges to the U.S. workforce posed by extreme heat demand proactive measures, necessitating collaboration among key government entities like OSHA alongside universities and nonprofit organizations. Currently, there is a glaring absence of mechanisms to safeguard workers who engage in physical work in the heat, particularly those from vulnerable demographics. 

To tackle this issue head-on, the establishment of OHRP funded through a private or public partnership is imperative. This initiative would champion climate equity in the workplace by expediting the adoption of evidence-based heat stress management strategies and emergency procedures. The program’s framework includes commitments from employers, recognition of best practices, increased resource allocation to vulnerable working groups, third-party auditing, and a non-retaliation mechanism. OHRP will have an immediate impact at both the federal and state level. Without the implementation of such a program, a significant portion of the U.S. workforce remains at risk of entirely preventable heat-related injuries, illnesses, and fatalities.

This idea of merit originated from our Extreme Heat Ideas Challenge. Scientific and technical experts across disciplines worked with FAS to develop potential solutions in various realms: infrastructure and the built environment, workforce safety and development, public health, food security and resilience, emergency planning and response, and data indices. Review ideas to combat extreme heat here.

Frequently Asked Questions
How does this proposal support the rule-making process for a heat stress standard and other federal extreme heat efforts?
Although federal action has begun to mobilize efforts to protect workers from extreme heat, the proposed federal and emergency heat stress standard will take several years to enforce and/or will contain limited details on the specific strategies to best protect workers. Evidence-based practices to best protect workers from extreme heat do exist—however, there is currently no system in place to ensure that employers implement them or protect vulnerable working populations. OHRP will accelerate the adoption of heat stress protection strategies, protect vulnerable working populations, and prepare companies for the future implementation of a federal or state heat standard. This will have an immediate impact at both the federal and state level as heat-related illnesses, injuries, and fatalities are entirely preventable with the implementation of evidence-based heat stress management strategies and emergency procedures.
How much would this proposal cost?

The program will require approximately $10 million for its initial three-year phase for startup, launch, and execution. A three-year projection is a conservative time based on the time frame for launching similar federal programs. The budget will be allocated to two areas:



  1. Time, labor, and travel costs for program management (~$8 million)

  2. Resource allocation for vulnerable working groups (i.e., small businesses, businesses with a high percentage of low-income workers) (~$2 million)


Following the three-year phase, approximately $1-2 million per year will be needed to reach more vulnerable working populations.

What accountability and evaluation measures will be included to ensure the program’s effectiveness?
The day-to-day operations will be run by executive teams led by the combined efforts of university and nonprofit partners and OSHA representatives. Each team will evaluate whether each principle is met and evaluate the program’s progress. The program will have clearly stated goals and will outline the roles and responsibilities of all personnel.

Revitalizing Federal Jobs Data: Unleashing the Potential of Emerging Roles

Emerging technologies and creative innovation are pivotal economic pillars for the future of the United States. These sectors not only promise economic growth but also offer avenues for social inclusion and environmental sustainability. However, the federal government lacks reliable and comprehensive data on these sectors, which hampers its ability to design and implement effective policies and programs. A key reason for this data gap is the outdated and inadequate job categories and classifications used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The BLS is the main source of official statistics on employment, wages, and occupations in the U.S. Part of the agency’s role is to categorize different industries, which helps states, researchers and other outside parties measure and understand the size of certain industries or segments of the economy. Another BLS purpose is to use the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system to categorize and define jobs based on their duties, skills, and education requirements. This is how all federal workers and contracted federal workers are classified. For an agency to create and fill a role, it needs a classification or SOC. State and private employers also use the classifications and data to allocate funding and determine benefits related to different kinds of positions. 

Where no classification (SOC) or job exists, it is unclear whether hiring and contracting happen according to programmatic intent and in a timely manner. This is particularly concerning to some employers and federal agencies that need  to align numerous jobs with the provisions of Justice 40, the Inflation Reduction Act and the newly created American Climate Corps. Many of the roles imagined by the American Climate Corps do not have classifications. This poses a significant barrier for effective program and policy design related to green and tech jobs.

The SOC system is updated roughly once every 10 years. There is not a set comprehensive review schedule for that or the industry categories. Updates are topical, with the last broad revision taking place in 2018. Unemployment reports and data related to wages are updated annually, and other topics less predictably. Updates and work on the SOC systems and categories for what are broadly defined as “green jobs” stopped in 2013 due to sequestration. This means that the BLS data may not capture the current and future trends and dynamics of the green and innovation economies, which are constantly evolving and growing.Because the BLS does not have a separate category for green jobs, it identifies them based on a variety of  industry and occupation codes. The range spans restaurant industry SOCs to construction. Classifying positions this way cannot reflect the cross-cutting and interdisciplinary nature of green jobs. Moreover, the process may not account for the variations and nuances of green jobs, such as their environmental impact, social value, and skill level. For example, if you want to work with solar panels, there is a construction classification, but nothing for community design, specialized finance, nor any complementary typographies needed for projects at scale.

Similarly, the BLS does not have a separate category for tech jobs. It identifies them based on the “Information and Communication Technologies” occupational groups of the SOC system. Again, this approach may not adequately reflect the diversity and complexity of tech jobs, which may involve new and emerging skills and technologies that are not yet recognized by the BLS. There are no classifications for roles associated with machine learning or artificial intelligence. Where the private sector has a much-discussed large language model trainer role, the federal system has no such classification. Appropriate skills matching, resource allocation, and the ability to measure the numbers and impacts of these jobs on the economy will be difficult if not impossible to fully understand. Classifying tech jobs in this manner may not account for the interplay and integration of tech jobs with other sectors, such as health care, education, and manufacturing.

These data limitations have serious implications for policy design and evaluation. Without accurate and timely data on green and tech jobs, the federal government may not be able to assess the demand and supply of these jobs, identify skill gaps and training needs, allocate resources, and measure the outcomes and impacts of its policies and programs. This will  result in missed opportunities, wasted resources, and suboptimal outcomes.

There is a need to update the BLS job categories and classifications to better reflect the realities and potentials of the green and innovation economies. This can be achieved by implementing the following strategic policy measures:

By updating the BLS job categories and classifications, the federal government can ensure that its data and statistics accurately reflect the current and future job market, thereby supporting effective policy design and evaluation related to green and tech jobs. Accurate and current data that mirrors the ever-evolving job market will also lay the foundation for effective policy design and evaluation in the realms of green and tech jobs. This commitment can contribute to the development of a workforce that not only meets economic needs but also aligns with the nation’s environmental aspirations.

Building the Talent Pipeline for the Energy Transition: Aligning U.S. Workforce Investment for Energy Security and Supply Chain Resilience

Summary

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States has outlined a de facto industrial policy to facilitate and accelerate the energy transition while seeking energy security and supply chain resilience. The rapid pace of industrial transformation driven by the energy transition will manifest as a human capital challenge, and the workforce will be realigned to the industrial policy that is rapidly transforming the labor market. The energy transition, combined with nearshoring, will rapidly retool the global economy and, with it, the skills and expertise necessary for workers to succeed in the labor market. A rapid, massive, and ongoing overhaul of workforce development systems will allow today’s and tomorrow’s workers to power the transition to energy security, resilient supply chains, and the new energy economy—but they require the right training opportunities scaled to match the needs of industry to do so.

Policymakers and legislators recognize this challenge, yet strategies and programs often sit in disparate parts of government agencies in labor, trade, commerce, and education. A single strategy that coordinates a diverse range of government policies and programs dedicated to training this emerging workforce can transform how young people prepare for and access the labor market and equip them with the tools to have a chance at economic security and well-being.

Modeled after the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, we propose the Energy Security Workforce Training (ESWT) Initiative to align existing U.S. government support for education and training focused on the jobs powering the energy transition. The Biden-Harris Administration should name an ESWT Coordinator to manage and align domestic investments in training and workforce across the federal government. The coordinator will spearhead efforts to identify skills gaps with industry, host a ESWT White House Summit to galvanize private and social sector commitments, encourage data normalization and sharing between training programs to identify what works, and ensure funds from existing programs scale evidence-based sector-specific training programs. ESWT should also encompass an international component for nearshored supply chains to perform a similar function to the domestic coordinator in target countries like Mexico and promote two-way learning between domestic and international agencies on successful workforce training investments in clean energy and advanced manufacturing.

Challenge and Opportunity

With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, the United States has a de facto industrial policy to facilitate and accelerate the energy transition while seeking energy security and supply chain resilience. However, our current workforce investments are not focused on the growing green skills gap. We require workforce investment aligned to the industrial policy that is rapidly transforming the labor market, to support both domestic jobs and the foreign supply chains that domestic jobs depend on. 

Preparing Americans to Power the Energy Transition

The rapid pace of industrial transformation driven by the energy transition will manifest as a human capital challenge. The energy transition will transform and create new jobs—requiring a massive investment to skill up the workers who will power the energy transition. Driving this rapid transition are billions of dollars slated for incentives and tax credits for renewable energy and infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, and supply chain creation for goods like electric vehicle batteries over the coming years. The vast upheaval caused by the energy transition combined with nearshoring is transforming both current jobs as well as the labor market young people will enter over the coming decade. The jobs created by the energy transition have the potential to shift a whole generation into the middle class while providing meaningful, engaging work. 

Moving low-income students into the middle class over the next 10 years will require that education and training institutions meet the rapid pace of industrial transformation required by the energy transition. Education and training providers struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of industrial transformation, resulting in skills gaps. Skills gaps are the distance between the skills graduates leave education and training with and the skills required by industry. Skills gaps rob young people of opportunities and firms of productivity. And according to LinkedIn’s latest Green Economy report, we are facing a green skills gap—with the demand for green skills outpacing the supply in the labor force. Firms have cited skills gaps in diverse sectors related to the energy transition, including infrastructure, direct air capture, electromobility, and geothermal power

Graduates with market-relevant skills earn between two and six times what their peers earn, based on evaluations of International Youth Foundation’s (IYF) programming. In addition, effective workforce development lowers recruitment, selection, and training costs for firms—thereby lowering the transaction costs to scale moving people into the positions needed to power the energy transition. Industrial transformation for the energy transition involves automation, remote sensing, and networked processes changing the role of the technician—who is no longer required to execute tasks but instead to manage automated processes and robots that now execute tasks. This changes the fundamental skills required of technicians to include higher-order skills for managing processes and robots. 

We will not be able to transform industry or seize the opportunities of the new energy future without overhauling education and training systems to build the skills required by this transformation and the industries that will power it. Developing higher-order thinking skills means changing not only what is taught but how teaching happens. For example, students may be asked to evaluate and make actionable recommendations to improve energy efficiency at their school. Because many of these new jobs require higher-order thinking skills, policy investment can play a crucial role in supporting workers and those entering the workforce to be competitive for these jobs. 

Creating Resilient Supply Chains, Facilitating Energy Security, and Promoting Global Stability in Strategic Markets

Moving young people into good jobs during this dramatic economic transformation will be critical not only in the United States but also to promote our interests abroad by (1) creating resilient supply chains, 2) securing critical minerals, and (3) avoiding extreme labor market disruptions in the face of a global youth bulge. 

Supply chain resilience concerns are nearshoring industrial production—shifting the demand for industrial workers across geographies at a shocking scale and speed—as more manufacturing and heavy industries move back into the United States’ sphere of influence. The energy transition combined with nearshoring will rapidly retool the global economy. We need a rapid, massive, and ongoing overhaul of workforce development systems at home and abroad. The scale of this transition is massive and includes complex, multinational supply chains. Supply chains are being reworked before our eyes as we nearshore production. For example, the port of entry in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, is undergoing rapid expansion in anticipation of explosive growth of imports of spare parts for electric vehicles manufactured in Mexico. These shifting supply chains will require the strategic development of a new workforce.

The United States requires compelling models to increase its soft power to secure critical minerals for the energy transition. Securing crucial minerals for the energy transition will again reshape energy supply chains, as the mineral deposits needed for the energy transition are not necessarily located in the same countries with large oil, gas, or coal deposits. The minerals required for the energy transition are concentrated in China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, Chile, Russia, and South Africa. We require additional levers to establish productive relationships to secure the minerals required for the energy transition. Workforce investments can be an important source of soft power. 

Today’s 1.2 billion young people today make up the largest and most educated generation the world has ever seen, or will ever see, yet they face unemployment rates at nearly triple that of adults. Globally the youth unemployment rate is 17.93% vs. 6.18% for adults. The youth unemployment rate refers to young people aged 15–24 who are available for or seeking employment but who are unemployed. While rich countries have already passed through their own baby booms, with accompanying “youth bulges,” and collected their demographic dividends to power economic growth and wealth, much of the developing world is going through its own demographic transition. While South Korea experienced sustained prosperity once its baby boomers entered the labor force in the early 2000s, Latin America’s youth bulge is just entering the labor force. In regions like Central America, this demographic change is fueling a wave of outmigration. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the youth bulge is making its way through compulsory education with increasing demands for government policy to meet high rates of youth unemployment. It is an open question whether today’s youth bulges globally will drive prosperity as they enter the labor market. Policymakers are faced with shaping labor force training, and government policy rooted in demonstrable industry needs to meet this challenge. At the same time, green jobs is already one of the most rapidly growing occupations. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that adopting clean energy technologies will generate 14 million jobs by 2030, with 16 million more to retrofit and construct energy-efficient buildings and manufacture new energy vehicles. At the same time, the World Economic Forum’s 2023 future of jobs report cites the green transition as the key driver of job growth. However, the developing world is not making the corresponding investments in training programs for the green jobs that are driving growth. 

Alignment with Existing Initiatives

The Biden-Harris Administration’s approach to the energy transition, supply chain resilience, and energy security must address this human capital challenge. Systemic approaches to building the skills for the energy transition through education and training complement the IRA’s incentivized apprenticeships, and focus investments from the IIJA, by building out a complete technical, vocational, education and training system oriented toward building the skills required for the energy transition. We propose a whole-of-government approach that integrates public investment in workforce training to focus on the energy transition and nearshoring with effective approaches to workforce development to address the growing green skills gap that endangers youth employment, the energy transition, energy security and supply chain resilience. 

The Biden-⁠Harris Administration Roadmap to Support Good Jobs demonstrates a commitment to building employment and job training into the Investing in America Agenda. The Roadmap catalogs programs throughout the federal government that address employment and workforce training authorized in recent legislation and meant to enable more opportunities for workers to engage with new technology, advanced manufacturing, and clean energy. Some programs had cross-sector reach, like the Good Jobs Challenge that reached 32 states and territories authorized in the American Rescue Plan to invest in workforce partnerships, while others are more targeted to specific industries, like the Battery Workforce Initiative that engages industry in developing a battery manufacturing workforce. The Roadmap’s clearinghouse of related workforce activities across the federal ecosystem presents a meaningful opportunity to advance this commitment by coordinating and strategically implementing these programs under a single series of objectives and metrics. 

Identifying evidence-driven training programs can also help fill the gap between practicums and market-based job needs by allowing more students access to practical training than can be reached solely by apprenticeships, which can have high individual transaction costs for grantees to coordinate. Additionally, programs like the Good Jobs Challenge required grantees to complete a skills-gap analysis to ensure their programs fit market needs. The Administration should seek to embed capabilities to conduct skills-gap analyses first before competitive grants are requested and issued to better inform program and grant design from the beginning and to share that learning with the broader workforce training community. By using a coordinated initiative to engage across these programs and legislative mandates, the Administration can create a more catalytic, scalable whole-of-government approach to workforce training.

Collaborating on metrics can also help identify which programs are most effective at meeting the core metrics of workforce training—increased income and job placements—which often are not met in workforce programs. This initiative could be measured across programs and agencies by (1) the successful hiring of workers into quality green jobs, (2) the reduction of employer recruitment and training costs for green jobs, and (3) demonstrable decreases in identified skills gaps—as opposed to a diversity of measures without clear comparability that correspond to the myriad agencies and congressional committees that oversee current workforce investments. Better transferable data measured against comparable metrics can empower agencies and Congress to direct continued funds toward what works to ensure workforce programs are effective.

The DOL’s TAACCCT program provides a model of how the United States has successfully invested in workforce development to respond to labor market shocks in the past. Building on TAACCCT’s legacy and its lessons learned, we propose focusing investment in workforce training to address identified skills gaps in partnership with industry, engaging employers from day one, rather than primarily targeting investment based on participant eligibility. When investing in bridging critical skills gaps in the labor market, strategy and programs must be designed to work with the most marginalized communities (including rural, tribal, and Justice40 communities) to ensure equitable access and participation. 

Increased interagency collaboration is required to meet the labor market demands of the energy transition, both in terms of domestic production in the United States and the greening of international supply chains from Mexico to South Africa. Our proposed youth workforce global strategy, the Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative outlined below provides a timely opportunity for the Administration to make progress on its economic development, workforce and climate goals. 

Plan of Action

We propose a new Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative to coordinate youth workforce development training investments across the federal government, focused on critical and nearshored supply chains that will power energy security. ESWT will be charged with coordinating U.S. government workforce strategies to build the pipeline for young people to the jobs powering the energy transition. ESWT will rework existing education and training institutions to build critical skills and to transform how young people are oriented to, prepared for, and connected to jobs powering the energy transition. ESWT will play a critical role in cross-sector and intergovernmental learning to invest in what works and to ensure federal workforce investments in collaboration with industry address identified skills gaps in the labor market for the energy transition and resilient supply chains. Research and industry confirmation would inform investments by the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Education (ED), Department of Commerce (DOC), and Department of Labor (DOL) toward building identified critical skills through scalable means with marginalized communities in mind. A key facet of ESWT will be to normalize and align the metrics by which federal, state, and local partners measure program effectiveness to allow for better comparability and long-term potential for scaling the most evidence-driven programs.

The ESWT should be coordinated by the National Economic Council(NEC) and DOC, particularly the Economic Development Administration. Once established, ESWT should also involve an international component focused on workforce investments to build resilience in nearshore supply chains on which U.S. manufacturing and energy security rely. Mexico should serve as an initial pilot of this global initiative because of its intertwined relationship with U.S. supply chains for products like EV batteries. Piloting a novel international workforce training program through private sector collaboration and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), DOL, and U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) investments could help bolster resilience for domestic jobs and manufacturing. Based on these results, ESWT could expand into other geographies of critical supply chains, such as Chile and Brazil. To launch ESWT, the Biden Administration should pursue the following steps.

Recommendation 1. The NEC should name an ESWT Initiative Coordinator in conjunction with a DOC or DOL lead who will spearhead coordination between different agency workforce training activities.

With limited growth in government funding over the coming years, a key challenge will be more effectively coordinating existing programs and funds in service of training young people for demonstrated skills gaps in the marketplace. As these new programs are implemented through existing legislation, a central entity in charge of coordinating implementation, learning, and investments can best ensure that funds are directed equitably and effectively. Additionally, this initial declaration can lay the groundwork to build capacity within the federal government to conduct market analyses and consult with industries to better inform program design and grant giving across the country. The DOC and the Economic Development Administration seem best positioned to lead this effort with an existing track record through the Good Jobs Challenge and capacity to engage fully with industry to build trust that curricula and training are conducted by people that employers verify as experts. However, the DOL could also take a co-lead role due to authorities established under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). In selecting lead agencies for ESWT, these criteria should be followed:

  1. Access to emerging business intelligence regarding industry-critical skills—DOC, DOE
  2. Combined international and domestic remit—DOE/DOL, DOC (ITA)
  3. Remit that allows department to focus investment on demonstrated skills gaps, indicated by higher wages and churn—DOC
  4. Permitted to convene advisory committees from the private sector under the Federal Advisory Committee Act—DOC

Recommendation 2. The DOC and NEC, working with partner agencies, should collaborate to identify and analyze skills gaps and establish private-sector feedback councils to consult on real-time industry needs.

As a first step, DOC should commission or conduct research to identify quantitative and qualitative skills gaps related to the energy transition in critical supply chains both domestically and in key international markets — energy efficiency in advanced manufacturing, electric vehicle production, steel, batteries, rare earth minerals, construction, infrastructure and clean energy. DOC should budget for 20 skills gap assessments for critical occupational groups (high volume of jobs and uncertainty related to required, relevant skills) in the above-mentioned sectors. Each skills gap assessment should cost roughly $100,000, bringing the total investment to $2 million over a six-to-twelve-month period.  Each skills gap assessment will determine the critical and scarce skills in a labor market for a given occupation and the degree to which existing education and training providers meet the demand for skills.

This research is central to forming effective programs to ensure investments align with industry skills needs and to lower direct costs on education providers, who often lack direct expertise in this form of analysis. Commissioning these studies can help build a robust ecosystem of labor market skills gap analysts and build capacity within the federal government to conduct these studies. By completing analysis in advance of competitive grant processes, federal grants can be better directed to training based on high-need industry skill sets to ensure participating students have market-driven employment opportunities on completion. The initial research phase would occur over a six-month timeline, including staffing and procurement. The ESWT coordinator would work with DOC, ED, and DOL to procure curricula, enrollment, and foreign labor market data. Partner agencies in this effort should also include the Departments of Education, Labor, and Energy. The research would draw upon existing research on the topic conducted by Jobs for the Future, IYF, the Project on Workforce at Harvard, and LinkedIn’s Economic Graph.

Recommendation 3. Host the Energy Security Workforce Development White House Summit to galvanize public, private, and social sector partners to address identified skills gaps.

The ESWT coordinator would present the identified quantitative and qualitative skills gaps at an action-oriented White House Summit with industry, state and local government partners, education providers, and philanthropic institutions. The Summit could serve as a youth-led gathering focused on workforce and upskilling for critical new industries and galvanize a call to action across sectors and localities. Participants will be asked to prioritize among potential choices based on research findings, available funding mechanisms, and imperatives to transform education and training systems at scale and at pace with industrial transformation. Addressing the identified skills gaps will require partnering with and securing the buy-in of both educational institutions as well as industry groups to identify what skills unlock opportunities in given labor markets, develop demand-driven training, and expanded capacity of education and training providers in order to align interests as well as curricula so that key players have the incentives and capacity to continually update curricula—creating lasting change at scale. This summit would also serve as a call to action for private sector partnerships to invest in helping reskill workers and establish buy-in from the public and civil society actors. 

Recommendation 4. Establish standards and data sharing processes for linking existing training funds and programs with industry needs by convening state and local grantees, state agencies, and federal government partners.

ESWT should lay out a common series of metrics by which the federal government will assess workforce training programs to better equip efforts to scale successful programs with comparable evidence and empower policymakers to invest in what works. We recommend using the following metrics: 

  1. Successful hiring of workers into quality green jobs
  2. The reduction of employer recruitment and training costs for green jobs
  3. Demonstrable decreases in identified skills gaps

Metrics 2 and 3 will rely on ongoing industry consultations—as well as data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because of the diffuse nature of existing skills gap analyses across federal grantees and workforce training programs, ESWT should serve as a convenor for learning between jurisdictions. Models for federal government data clearinghouses could be effective as well as direct sharing of evidence and results between education providers across a series of common metrics.

Recommendation 5. Ensure grants and investments in workforce training are tied to addressing specific identified skills gaps, not just by regional employment rates.

A key function of ESWT would be to determine feasible and impactful strategies to address skills gaps in critical supply chains, given the identified gaps, existing funding mechanisms, the buy-in of critical actors in key labor markets (both domestic and international), agency priorities, and the imperative to make transformative change at scale. The coordinator could help spur agencies to pursue flexible procurement and grant-making focused on outcomes and tied to clear skills gap criteria to ensure training demonstrably develops skills required by market needs for the energy transition and growing domestic supply chains. While the Good Jobs Challenge required skills gap analysis of grantees, advanced analyses by the ESWT Initiative could inform grant requirements to ensure federal funds are directed to high-need programs. As many of these fields are new, innovative funding mechanisms could be used to meet identified skills gaps and experiment with new training programs through tiered evidence models. Establishing criteria for successful workforce training programs could also serve as a market demand-pull signal that the federal government is willing and able to invest in certain types of training, crowding-in potential new players and private sector resources to create programs tailored for the skills industry needs.

Depending on the local context, the key players, and the nature of the strategy to bridge the skills gap for each supply chain, the coordinating department will determine what financing mechanism and issuing agency is most appropriate: compacts, grants, cooperative agreements, or contracts. For example, to develop skills related to worker safety in rare-earth mineral mines in South Africa or South America, the DOL could issue a grant under the Bureau of International Labor Affairs. To develop the data science skills critical for industrial and residential energy efficiency, the ED could issue a grants program to replicate Los Angeles Unified School District’s Common Core-aligned data science curriculum.

Recommendation 6. Congress should authorize flexible workforce training grants to disperse—based on identified industry needs—toward evidence-driven, scalable training models and funding for ESWT within the DOC to facilitate continued industry skills need assessments.

Congress should establish dedicated staff and infrastructure for ESWT to oversee workforce training investments and actively analyze industry needs to inform federal workforce investment strategies. Congress and the Administration should also explore how to incentivize public-private partnerships and requirements for energy, manufacturing, and supply chain companies to engage in curriculum development efforts or provide technical expertise to access tax credits included in the IRA or CHIPS.

Recommendation 7. ESWT could also incorporate an international perspective for nearshored supply chains critical to energy security and advanced manufacturing. 

To pilot this model, we recommend:

  1. Bilateral coordination of federal workforce and training investments across agencies like State, USAID, and DFC: Mexico could serve as an ideal pilot country due to its close ties with U.S. supply chains and growth in the manufacturing sector. This coordination effort should direct USAID and other government funding toward workforce training for industries critical to domestic supply chains for energy security and green jobs.
  2. Two-way learning between domestic and international workforce programs: As ESWT develops effective strategies to address the skills gap for the energy transition, the interagency initiative will identify opportunities for two-way learning. For example, as curricula for eclectic vehicle assembly is developed and piloted in Mexico with support from USAID, it could inform U.S.-based community colleges’ work with the DOL and DOE.
  3. If successful, expand to additional aligned countries including Brazil, India, and South Africa and nations throughout the Americas that source energy and manufacturing inputs for the green economy: ESWT could facilitate scalable public-private partnership vehicles for partner country governments, private corporations, philanthropy, and nongovernmental organizations to collaborate and fund country-dedicated programs to train their energy and climate workforce. This step could be done in conjunction with naming a Special Envoy at the State Department to coordinate diplomatic engagement with partner countries. The Envoy and Coordinator should have expertise and experience in North and South America economic relations and diplomacy, and labor markets economics. Congress could incorporate dedicated funds for ESWT into annual appropriations at State.

Conclusion

The transition from an economy fueled by human and animal labor to fossil fuels took roughly 200 years (1760–1960) and was associated with massive labor market disruptions as society and workers reacted to a retooled economy. Avoiding similar labor market disruptions as we seek to transition off fossil fuels over decades, not centuries, will require concentrated coordinated action. The Energy Security Workforce Training Initiative will overhaul education and training systems to develop the skills needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the labor markets central to long-term U.S. energy security and ensure that supply chains are resilient to shocks. Such a coordinated investment in training will lower recruitment, selection, and training costs for firms while increasing productivity and move people into the middle class with the jobs fueling the energy transition. 

By focusing federal workforce funding on addressing the green skills gap, we will be able to address the human capital challenges implicit in scaling the infrastructure, manufacturing overhaul, and supply chain reconfiguration necessary to secure a just transition, both at home and abroad. By building in critical international supply chains both for manufacturing and energy security from day one, the ESWT Initiative incorporates two-way learning as a means to knit together strategic supply chains through bilateral investments in equitable workforce initiatives. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What can a coordinator/interagency collaboration model offer that existing approaches do not?

Existing investments in workforce development are fragmented and are not oriented toward building the workforce needed to a net-zero carbon world, with secure energy supplies and resilient supply chains. This collaboration model ensures that workforce investments are aligned towards the net-zero carbon by 2050 aim and are targeted to the domestic and international labor markets essential to ensuring that aim, energy security, and supply chain resilience.


Similarly, to the Feed the Future Coordinator, created in 2009 because of global food insecurity and recognizing after the L’Aquila Italy G8 Summit Joint Statement on Global Food Security towards a goal of mobilizing $20 million over three years towards global agricultural and development that we needed a greater focus on food security. 


This role would ensure that programs are aligned around common goal and measuring progress towards that goal. The NEC oversees the work of the coordinator. Ultimately, the Coordinator would work with Congress and the NEC to develop authorization language. 

How would the ESWT function with differing funding sources and agency stakeholders? Does Congress need to authorize this?

Instead of creating a new fund or program requiring congressional authorization, the ESWT strategy would align existing workforce investments across government with the Administration’s aim of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

What evidence is there that workforce training and education can meet the skills gap you identify? What is the risk of failure?

Skills gaps are persistent problems around the world as education and training systems struggle to keep up with changing demands for skills. Simply investing in training systems, without addressing the underlying causes of skills gaps, will not address skills gaps. Instead, investment must be tied to the development of market-demanded skills. In IYF’s experience, this requires understanding quantitative and qualitative skills gaps, developing an industry consensus around priority skills, and driving changes to curricula, teaching practices, and student services to orient and train young people for opportunities.

How does this approach align with current and past legislative priorities?

Our proposed unified approach to workforce development for the energy transition aligns with the priorities of the former Congress’s House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment, the US Strategy to Combat Climate Change through International Development; and the Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America.

How does this approach align with USAID’s priorities?

Systemic workforce approaches that engage the public, private, and civil sectors spur catalytic investments and bring new partners to the table in line with USAID’s commitment to drive progress, not simply development programs. However, there has been little concentrated investment to build the necessary skills for the energy transition. A coordinated investment strategy to support systemic approaches to build the workforce also aligns with USAID’s localization agenda by:



  1. Building the capacity of local Technical Vocational Education and Training systems to develop the workforce that each country needs to meet its zero-emission commitments while continuing to grow its economy. 

  2. Developing the capacity of local organizations, whose mission will be to facilitate workforce development efforts between the public, private and civil sectors. 

  3. Incentivize industrial policy changes to include workforce considerations in the plan to decarbonize.

  4. Creating increased opportunities to generate and share evidence on successful workforce strategies and programs. To keep up with this rapid transformation of the economy, it will be essential to share information, lessons learned, and effective approaches across international, multilateral, and bilateral organizations and through public private partnerships. For example, the Inter-American Development Bank has identified the Just Transition as a strategic priority and is working with LinkedIn to identify critical skills. As Abby Finkenauer, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Global Youth Issues, has long championed, bringing domestic and international lessons together will be critical to make a more inclusive decarbonized economy possible.

State of the Federal Clean Energy Workforce

How Improved Talent Practices Can Help the Department of Energy Meet the Moment

This report aims to provide a snapshot of clean energy talent at the Department of Energy and its surrounding orbit: the challenges, successes, and opportunities that the workforce is experiencing at this once-in-a-generation moment.

To compile the findings in this report, FAS worked with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, government agencies, advocacy and workforce coalitions, and private companies over the last year. We held events, including information sessions, recruitment events, and convenings; we conducted interviews with more than 25 experts from the public and private sector; we developed recommendations for improving talent acquisition in government, and helped agencies find the right talent for their needs.

Overall, we found that DOE has made significant progress towards its talent and implementation goals, taking advantage of the current momentum to bring in new employees and roll out new programs to accelerate the clean energy transition. The agency has made smart use of flexible hiring mechanisms like the Direct Hire Authority and Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) agreements, ramped up recruitment to meet current capacity needs, and worked with partners to bring in high-quality talent.

But there are also ways to build on DOE’s current approaches. We offer recommendations for expanding the use of flexible hiring mechanisms: through expanding IPA eligibility to organizations vetted by other agencies, holding trainings for program offices through the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, and asking Congress to increase funding for human capital resources. Another recommendation encourages DOE to review its use to date of the Clean Energy Corps’ Direct Hire Authority and identify areas for improvement. We also propose ways to build on DOE’s recruitment successes: by partnering with energy sector affinity groups and clean energy membership networks to share opportunities; and by building closer relationships with universities and colleges to engage early career talent.

Some of these findings and recommendations are pulled from previous memos and reports, but many are new recommendations based on our experiences working and interacting with partners within the ecosystem over the past year. The goal of this report is to help federal and non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem grow talent and prepare for the challenges in clean energy in the coming decades.

The Moment

The climate crisis is not just a looming threat–it’s already here, affecting the lives of American citizens. The federal government has taken a central role in climate mitigation and adaptation, especially with the recent passage of several pieces of legislation. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) all provide levers for federal agencies to address the crisis and reduce emissions.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is leading the charge and is the target of much of the funding from the above bills. The legislation provides DOE over $97 billion dollars of funding aimed at commercializing and deploying new clean energy technologies, expanding energy efficiency in homes and businesses, and decreasing emissions in a range of industries.

These are robust and much-needed investments in federal agencies, and the effects will ripple out across the whole economy. The Energy Futures Initiative, in a recent report, estimated that IRA investments will lead to 1.46 million more jobs over the next ten years than there would have been without the bill. Moreover, these jobs will be focused in key industries, like construction, manufacturing, and electric utilities.

But those jobs won’t magically appear–and the IIJA and IRA funding won’t magically be spent. That amount of money would be overwhelming for any large organization, and initiatives and benefits will take time to manifest.

When it passed these two bills, Congress recognized that the Department of Energy–and the federal government more broadly– would need new tools to use these new resources effectively. That is why it included new funding and expanded hiring authorities to allow the agencies to quickly find and hire expert staff. 

Now it is up to DOE to find the subject matter expertise, talent, partnerships, and cross-sector knowledge sharing from the larger clean energy ecosystem it needs to execute on Congress’s incredibly ambitious goals. Perhaps the most critical factor in DOE’s success will be ensuring that the agency has the staff it needs to meet the moment and implement the bold targets established in the recent legislation.

Why Talent?

To implement policy effectively and spend taxpayer dollars efficiently, the federal government needs people. Investing in a robust talent pipeline is important for all agencies, especially given that only about 8% of federal employees are under 30, and at DOE only 4% are under 30. Building this pipeline is critical for the clean energy transition that’s already underway–not only for not the federal government, but for the entire ecosystem. In order to meet clean energy deployment estimates across the country, clean energy jobs will need to increase threefold by 2025 and almost sixfold by 2030 from 2020 jobs numbers. This job growth will require cross-sector investment in workforce training and education, innovation ecosystems, and research and development of new technologies. Private firms, venture capital, and the civil sector can all play a role, but as the country’s largest employer, the government will need to lead the way.

To meet its ambitious policy goals, government agencies need to move beyond stale hiring playbooks and think creatively. Strategies like flexible hiring mechanisms can help the Department of Energy–and all federal agencies–meet urgent needs and begin to build a longer-term talent pipeline. Workforce development, recruitment, and hiring can take years to do right – but mechanisms like tour-of-service models (i.e. temporary or termed positions), direct hire authorities, and excepted service hiring allow agencies to retain talent quickly, overcome administrative bottlenecks, and access individuals with technical expertise who may not otherwise consider working in the public sector. See the Appendix for more information on specific hiring authorities.

This paper outlines insights, strategies, and opportunities for DOE’s talent needs based on the Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) one-year pilot partnership with the department. Non-federal actors in the clean energy ecosystem can also benefit from this report–by understanding the different avenues into the federal government, civil society and private organizations can work more effectively with DOE to shepherd in the clean energy revolution. 

Broadly, we hope that our experience working with DOE can serve as a case study for other federal agencies when considering the challenges and opportunities around talent recruitment, onboarding, and retention.

Where does DOE need talent? 

While the IRA and IIJA funded dozens of programs across DOE, there are several offices that received larger amounts of funding and have critical talent needs currently. 

A Pilot Partnership: FAS and DOE Talent Efforts

In January 2022, FAS established a partnership with DOE to support the implementation of a broad range of ambitious priorities to stimulate a clean energy transition. Through a partnership with DOE’s Office of Under Secretary for Science and Innovation (S4), our team discovered unmet talent needs and worked with S4 to develop strategies to address hiring challenges posed by DOE’s rapid growth through the IIJA. 

This included expanding FAS’s Impact Fellowship program to DOE. This program supports fellows who bring scientific and technical expertise to bear in the public domain, including within government. To date, through IPA (Intergovernmental Personnel Act) agreements, FAS has placed five fellows in high-impact positions in DOE, with another cohort of 5 fellows in the pipeline.

FAS Impact Fellows placed at DOE have proven that this mechanism can have a positive impact on government operations. Current Fellows work in a number of DOE offices, using their expertise to forward work on emerging clean energy technologies, facilitate the transition of energy communities from fossil fuels to clean energy, and ensure that DOE’s work is communicated strategically and widely, among other projects. In a short time, these fellows have had a large impact–they are bringing expertise from outside government to bear in their roles at the agency. 

In addition to placing fellows, FAS has worked to evangelize DOE’s Clean Energy Corps by actively recruiting, holding events, and advertising for specific roles within DOE. To more broadly support hiring and workforce development at the agency, we piloted a series of technical assistance projects in coordination with DOE, including hiring webinars and cross-sector roundtables with leaders in the agency and the larger clean energy ecosystem. 

From this work, FAS has learned more about the challenges and opportunities of talent acquisition–from flexible hiring mechanisms to recruitment–and has developed several recommendations for both Congress and DOE to strengthen the federal clean energy workforce.

Flexible Hiring Mechanisms

One key lesson from the past year of work is the importance of flexible hiring mechanisms broadly. This includes special authorities like the Direct Hire Authority, but also includes tour-of-service models of employment. A ‘tour-of-service’ position can take many forms, but generally is a termed or temporary position, often full-time and focused on a specific project or set of projects. In times of urgency, like the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic or following the passage of large pieces of new legislation, hiring managers may need high numbers of staff in a short amount of time to implement policy–a challenge often heightened by stringent federal hiring guidelines. 

Traditional federal hiring is frustrating for both sides. For applicants, filling out applications is complicated and jargony and the wait times are long and unpredictable. For offices, resources are scarce, there are seemingly endless legal and administrative hoops to jump through, and the wait times are still long and unpredictable. In general, tour-of-service hiring mechanisms offer a way to hire key staff for specific needs more quickly, while offering many other unique benefits, including, but not limited to, cross-sector knowledge sharing, professional development, recruitment tools, and relationship-building.

These mechanisms can also expand the potential talent pool for a particular position–highly trained technical professionals can prove difficult to recruit on a full-time basis, but temporary positions may be more attractive to them. IPA agreements, for example, can last for 1-2 years and take less time to execute than hiring permanent employees or contractors. More generally, all types of flexible hiring authorities can give agencies quicker ways of hiring highly qualified staff in sometimes niche fields. Flexible hiring mechanisms can also reduce the barrier to entry for professionals not as familiar with federal hiring processes–broadening offices’ reach and increasing the diversity of applicants.

FAS’s work with DOE has demonstrated these benefits. With FAS and other organizations, DOE has successfully used IPAs to staff high-impact positions. More recommendations on the use of IPAs specifically can be found in a later section. Through its Impact Fellowship, FAS has yielded successful case studies of how cross-sector talent can support impactful policy implementation in the department.

DOE should expand awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms.

DOE should work to expand the awareness and use of flexible hiring mechanisms in order to bring in more highly skilled employees with cross-sector knowledge and experience. This could be achieved in a number of ways. The Office of the Chief Human Capital Office (CHCO) should continue to educate hiring managers across DOE about potential hiring authorities available: they could offer additional trainings on different mechanisms and work with OPM to identify opportunities for new authorities. There are existing communities of practice for recruitment and other talent topics at DOE, and hiring officials can use these to discuss best practices and challenges around using hiring authorities effectively. 

DOE can also look to other agencies for ideas on innovative hiring. Agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and Department of Veterans Affairs run different forms of industry exchange programs that allow private sector experts to bring their skills and knowledge into government and vice versa. Another example is the Joint Statistical Research Program hosted by the Internal Revenue Service’s Statistics of Income Office. This program brings in tax policy experts on term appointments using the IPA mechanism, similar to the National Science Foundation’s Rotator program. Once developed, these programs can allow agencies to benefit from talent and expertise from a larger pool and access specialized skill sets while protecting against conflicts of interest.

DOE should partner with external organizations to champion tour-of-service programs.

There are other ways to expand flexible hiring mechanism use as well. Program offices and the Office of the CHCO can partner with outside organizations like FAS to champion tour-of-service programs in the wider clean energy community, in order to educate non-federal eligible parties on how they can get involved. Federal hiring processes can seem opaque to outside organizations, with additional paperwork, conflict of interest concerns, long timelines, and potential clearance hurdles. If outside organizations better understand the different ways they can partner with agencies and the benefits of doing so, agencies could increase enthusiasm for programs like tour-of-service hiring. At NSF, for example, the Rotator program is well known in the communities it operates within–both academia and government understand the benefits of participating. 

Although these mechanisms and authorities have significant medium- and long-term benefits for agencies, they require upfront administrative effort and cost. Even if staff are aware of potential tools they can use, understanding the logistics, funding mechanisms, conflict of interest regulations, and recruitment and placement of staff hired through these mechanisms often requires investment of time and money from the agency side and can overwhelm already stressed hiring managers. 

Congress should increase funding for DOE’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer.

In order to support DOE in using flexible hiring mechanisms more effectively, Congress should direct more funding to the agency’s Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer. In FY23, the office has not only continued to execute on mandates from the IIJA and the IRA, but has introduced new programs aimed at modernizing the office and improving on hiring. These programs and tools, including standing up talent teams to better assess competency gaps across program offices and developing HR IT platforms to more effectively make data-driven personnel decisions, are vital to the growth of the office and in turn the ability of DOE to follow through on key executive priorities. Congress should increase funding to DOE’s Human Capital office by $10M in FY24 over FY23 levels. As IRA and IIJA priorities continue to be rolled out, the Human Capital office will remain pivotal to the agency’s success. 

Congress should increase DOE’s baseline program direction funds. 

A related recommendation is for Congress to further support hiring at DOE by increasing the base budget of program direction funds across agency offices. Restrictions on this funding limits the agency’s ability to hire and the number of employees it can bring on. When offices are limited in the number of staff they can hire, they have tended to bring on more senior employees. This helps achieve the agency’s mission but limits the overall growth of the agency – without early career talent, offices are unable to train a new generation of diverse clean energy leaders. Increasing program direction budgets through the annual appropriations process will allow DOE to have more flexibility in who they hire, building a stronger workforce across the agency.

Clean Energy Corps and the Direct Hire Authority

Expanded Direct Hire Authority has been a boon for DOE, despite some implementation challenges. Congress included DHA in the IIJA, in order to help federal agencies quickly add staff to implement the legislation. In response, DOE set an initial goal of hiring over 1,000 new employees in its Clean Energy Corps, which encompasses all DOE staff who work on clean energy and climate. DOE also requested an additional authority for supporting implementation of the IRA through OPM. To date, the program has received almost 100,000 applications and has hired nearly 700 employees. We have heard positive feedback from offices across the agency about how the DHA has helped hire qualified staff more quickly than through traditional hiring. It has allowed DOE offices to take advantage of the momentum in the clean energy movement right now and made it easier for applicants to show their interest and move through the hiring process. To date, among federal agencies with IIJA/IRA direct hire authorities, DOE has been an exemplar in implementation.

The Direct Hire Authority has been successful so far in part because of its advertisement; there was public excitement about the climate impact of the IIJA and IRA, and DOE took advantage of the momentum and shared information about the Clean Energy Corps widely, including through partnerships with non-governmental entities. For example, FAS and Clean Energy for America held hiring webinars, and other organizations and individuals have continued to share the announcement. 

Congress should extend the Direct Hire Authority.

Congress should consider extending the authority past its current timeline. The agency’s direct hire authority under the IIJA expires in 2027, while its authority requested through OPM expires at the end of 2025 – and is capped at only 300 positions.  With DOE taking on more demonstration and deployment activities as well as increased community and stakeholder engagement with the passage of the IIJA and IRA, the agency needs capacity–and the Direct Hire Authority can help it get the specialized resources it needs. Extending the authority beyond 2025 and requesting that OPM increase the cap on positions is more urgent, but the authority should continue past 2027 as well, to ensure that DOE can continue to hire effectively. 

Congress should expand the breadth of DHA. 

Additionally, Congress should expand the authority to other offices across DOE. It is currently limited to certain roles and offices, but there are additional opportunities within the department to support the clean energy transition that don’t have access to DHA. This is especially important given that offices with the direct hire authority can pull employees from offices without–leaving the latter to backfill positions on a much longer timeline using conventional merit hiring practices. Expanding the authority would support the development of the agency as a whole. 

Beyond just removing the authority’s cap on roles supporting the IRA, expansions or extensions of the authority should increase the number of authorized positions to account for a baseline attrition rate. The authority limits the number of positions that can be filled – once that number of staff is hired, the authority can no longer be used for that office or agency. As with any workplace, federal agencies experience a normal amount of attrition, but the stakes are higher when direct hire employees leave the organization because of the authority’s constraints. Any authorization of the DHA in the future should consider how attrition will impact actual hires over the authorization period. 

In order to bolster support for expanding the authority, DOE can take steps to share out successes of the program. The DHA has been a huge win for federal clean energy hiring, and publicizing news about related programs, offices, funding opportunities, and employees that would not exist but for the support of the Clean Energy Corps would help make the connection between flexible hiring and government effectiveness and would generate excitement about DOE’s activities in the general public.

DOE should highlight success stories of the Clean Energy Corps.

As part of a larger external communications strategy, DOE should highlight success stories of current employees hired through the Clean Energy Corps portal. These spotlights could focus on projects, partnerships, or funding opportunities that employees contributed to and put a face to the achievements of the Clean Energy Corps thus far. Not only would this encourage future high-quality applicants and ensure continued interest in the program, but would also advertise to Congress and the general public that the authority is successful and increase support for more flexible hiring authorities and clean energy funding. 

There are also some opportunities to improve DOE’s use of the authority and make it even more effective. With so many applications, hiring managers and program offices are often overwhelmed by sheer volume – leading to long wait times for applicants. Some offices at DOE have tried to address this bottleneck by building informal processes to screen and refer candidates–using their internal system to identify qualified applicants and sharing those applications with other program offices. But there may be additional ways to reduce the backlog of applications. 

DOE should conduct a review of DHA’s use thus far.

DOE should conduct an assessment of the use of the Direct Hire Authority in relevant offices. The program has been running for over a year, and there is enough data to review and better understand strengths and areas of growth of the authority. The review could be an opportunity to highlight and build on successful strategies like the informal process above–with program offices who currently use those strategies helping to scale them up. It could also assess attrition rates and compare them to agency-wide and non-DHA attrition rates to understand opportunities to improve or share out successes around retention. Finally, the review could also act as a resource for Congress to help justify the authority’s renewal in the future. 

Use of IPA Agreements

One of the most well-known tour-of-service programs is the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. When used effectively, it can allow agencies to share cross-sector knowledge, increase their capacity, and achieve their missions more fully. As noted previously, DOE has made use of IPAs in some capacities, but barriers to expanding the program still exist. First, the DOE maintains a list of ‘IPA-certified’ organizations, including non-profits that must first certify their eligibility to participate in IPA agreements. According to OPM, if an organization has already been certified by an agency, this certification is permanent and may apply throughout the federal government. This is an effective practice that theoretically allows DOE to bring on IPAs from those organizations more quickly – without the additional administrative work necessary to research and vet each organization multiple times. 

However, when FAS engaged DOE to expand the Impact Fellowship to the agency, FAS was asked to re-certify its eligibility separately with DOE despite already having conducted IPA agreements with other agencies. As of May 2021, DOE has only approved 22 organizations for IPA eligibility. With the clean energy ecosystem booming, this leaves a large amount of talent potential going untapped. 

DOE should amend its IPA directive.

One solution to this issue would be for DOE to amend its IPA directive, which was last updated in 2000, to automatically approve IPA eligibility for organizations that have been certified by other agencies. Agencies such as NSF, USDA, GSA, and others also maintain lists of IPA-eligible organizations, providing DOE a readily available pool of potential IPA talent without certifying those organizations independently. This solution could expand the list of certified organizations and reduce DOE’s internal administrative burden. Organizations that know they will go through an initial vetting process once rather than multiple times could redouble efforts to build that partnership with DOE. 

DOE should work with outside organizations to share strategies. 

The previous recommendation on educating eligible non-federal organizations on tour-of-service mechanisms applies here as well. Organizations like FAS with a proven track record of setting up IPA agreements with agencies can share best practices, success stories, and champion the program in the broader non-profit ecosystem. However, agencies can also develop externally facing IPA resources, sharing training and ‘how-to’ guides with nonprofits and academic institutions that could be good fits for the program but aren’t aware of their eligibility or requirements to participate.

Recruitment

Recruitment is another area where we learned lessons from our work alongside DOE. FAS and Clean Energy for America held recruitment information sessions for people interested in working for DOE, spotlighting offices who needed more staff. One strategy that helped target specific skill gaps within the agency was developing ‘personas’ based on certain skill sets, like finance and manufacturing. These personas were short descriptions of a specific skill set for an industry, consisting of several highlighted experiences, skills, or certifications that are key to roles in that industry. This enabled our team to develop a more tailored recruitment event, conduct targeted outreach, and execute the event with a more invested group of attendees. 

DOE should identify specific skills gaps to target recruitment efforts.

DOE hiring managers and program offices should identify skills gaps in their offices and recruit for those gaps using personas. Personas can help managers more intentionally target outreach and recruit in certain industries by allowing them to advertise to associations, academic programs, or on job boards that include potential applicants with those skills and experiences. This practice could bolster recruitment and reduce the time to hire by attracting more qualified candidates up front. It also helps offices take a more proactive approach to hiring–a difficult ask for hiring managers, who are often overworked. 

DOE should continue to utilize remote flexibilities.

Another successful recruitment strategy highlighted in our work with DOE has been the use of remote flexible positions. DOE should continue to widely utilize remote flexibilities in job opportunities and recruitment in order to attract talent from all 50 states, not just those where DOE has a physical presence. As the desire for remote employment remains high across the public and private sector, fully utilizing the remote flexibilities can help federal employers stay competitive with the private sector and attract high-quality talent.

Another area of recruitment where DOE could capitalize further is with more partnerships with non-federal organizations. Outside organizations can leverage their networks–helping expand the talent pool, increase diversity, and support candidates through the federal hiring process, competitive or otherwise.  Networks like New York Climate Tech have been tirelessly organizing the climate tech community in New York City, and even plan to start expanding to other cities soon. These types of organizing are invigorating for climate professionals; they can energize existing advocates and evangelize to new ones. Helping connect those networks to government opportunities–whether prize competitions, job opportunities, or grants–can strengthen cross-sector relationships and the clean energy workforce overall. 

Such efforts would also support federal recruitment strategies, which are often not as visible as they could be given the sheer amount of work required for proactive outreach. Earth Partners, a climate tech venture capital firm, partnered with the Office of Clean Energy Deployment to hire for high-impact positions by leveraging its own network. 

DOE should use partner organizations to broadcast hiring needs. 

DOE Office of the Human Capital Officer, hiring managers, or program offices should consider how they can partner with other organizations to broadcast hiring needs. These can be larger clean energy associations and member organizations like Clean Energy for America, New York Climate Tech, FAS, and Climate Power, or they could be energy sector affinity groups like Women In Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE). Coordinated social media campaigns, partnered recruitment events, or even sending out open positions in those organizations’ regular newsletters could help broaden DOE’s recruitment reach. Because of the momentum in the clean energy community, non-federal organizations have built out substantial recruitment infrastructure for potential applicants and can help publicize positions. 

DOE should build a presence at campus hiring events.

Similarly, DOE hiring managers should build and maintain a presence at higher education hiring events. There are a number of ways to bring more early career staff into government, but DOE can focus on recruiting more intentionally from universities and community colleges. The agency should cultivate relationships with university networks–especially those of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs)–and develop recruitment messages that appeal to younger populations. DOE could also focus on universities with strong clean energy curricula–in the form of recognized courses and programs or student associations. 

DOE should expand partnerships with external recruitment firms.

Some positions, of course, are harder to recruit for. In addition to mid-level employees, government also needs strong senior leaders–candidates for these positions don’t often come in droves to recruitment events. Some DOE offices have found success with using private recruitment firms to identify candidates from the private sector and invite them to apply for Senior Executive Service (SES) level positions in government. This practice, in addition to bringing in specific executive recruitment, also helps career private-sector applicants navigate the government hiring process. 

DOE should learn from current strategies and continue to partner with private recruitment firms to identify potential SES candidates and invite them to apply. Using recruitment firms can help simplify position description language and help guide candidates through the process. DOE currently uses this successfully for certain skill set gaps, but should seek to expand the practice for recruitment needs that are more specific. 

DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy. 

Longer term, DOE should develop its own senior talent recruitment strategy. This strategy can be developed using lessons learned from private recruitment firms or from meeting with other agencies to understand best practices in the space. SES positions require different candidate management strategies, and if DOE aims to attract more non-federal talent, developing in-house expertise is important.

DOE already has the infrastructure for strategies like this. Offices involved in IIJA implementation are building office-specific recruitment strategies. These strategies consider diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, as well as skill sets and high-need positions within offices. Incorporating senior talent needs into these strategies could help uncover best practices for attracting quality leaders, and expanding these recruitment strategies beyond just IIJA-oriented offices could support workforce development across the agency more broadly. 

The Path Forward

DOE has made significant progress on the road to implementation, hiring hundreds of new employees to support the clean energy transition and carry out programs from IIJA, IRA, and the CHIPS and Science Act. The agency still faces challenges, but also opportunities to grow its workforce, improve its hiring processes, and bring in even more high-quality, skilled talent into the federal government. We hope DOE and Congress will consider these recommendations as they continue to work toward a stronger clean energy ecosystem in the years to come.


Appendix: Overview of hiring authorities

IPAs 

The Intergovernmental Personnel Act (IPA) Mobility Program that allows temporary assignment of personnel between the federal government and state/local/tribal governments, colleges/universities, FFRDCs, and approved non-profit organizations. According to a 2022 Government Accountability Office report, IPAs are a high-impact mechanism for bringing talent into the federal government quickly, yet they’re often underutilized. As detailed in the report, agencies’(including DOE) can use the IPA Mobility Program to address agency skills gaps in highly technical or complex mission areas, provide talent with flexibility and opportunities for temporary commitments, and can be administratively light touch and cost effective, when the program is implemented correctly. The report noted that agencies struggled to use the program to its full effectiveness, and that there’s an opportunity for agencies to increase their use of the program, if they can tackle the challenges. 

Direct Hire

The Direct Hire Authority allows agencies to directly hire candidates for critical needs or when a severe shortage of candidates exists. This authority circumvents competitive hiring and candidates preferences, allowing agencies to significantly reduce the time involved to hire candidates. It also presents an easier application process for candidates. DHA must be specially granted by OPM unless a governmentwide authority already exists–as it does for Information Technology Management, STEM, and Cybersecurity. For example, DOE was granted a DHA for positions related to implementing the IIJA and IRA.

Excepted Service

EJ and EK

EJ and EK hiring authorities are a form of “excepted service” unique to DOE. According to DOE, the EJ authority is used to enhance the Department’s recruitment and retention of highly qualified scientific, engineering, and professional and administrative personnel. Appointments and corresponding compensation determined  under this authority can be made without regard to the civil service laws.” The EK authority is similar, but more specific to personnel whose duties will relate to safety at defense nuclear facilities of the Department. The EK authority is time-limited by law and must be renewed.

Schedule A(r)

Also known as the “fellowship authority,”  Schedule A(r) facilitates term appointments for 1 to 4 years. This authority is especially helpful for:

Experts and Consultants

According to the department’s HR resources, DOE uses Experts and Consultants to, “provide professional or technical expertise that does not exist or is not readily available within DOE or to perform services that are not of a continuing nature and/or could not be performed by DOE employees in competitive or other permanent full-time positions.” Typically, Expert and Consultants can be used for intermittent, part-time, or term-limited, full-time roles.

Understanding and using these flexible hiring authorities can help DOE expand its network of talent and hire the people it needs for this current moment. More details on flexible hiring mechanisms can be found here.

Implementation Bottlenecks: Federal Talent will Drive IIJA and IRA Success

The past few years have seen a surge of climate and clean energy legislation at the federal level. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have changed what’s possible for the US when it comes to fighting climate change, deploying innovative clean energy technologies, and moving towards a net-zero world. 

Of course, passing the legislation is only the first step. Since the passage of the above packages, federal agencies have been working around the clock to carry out the mandates within. Agencies like Commerce, EPA, DOE, Agriculture, Transportation, and more have been releasing funding opportunities, holding prize competitions, setting up grants and rulemaking processes, developing guidance, and trying to distribute resources as quickly and as equitably as possible. 

The federal government has been hugely successful in many ways in implementing these massive bills. But there have also been – and will continue to be – bumps along the way. As quickly as agencies have been moving, they are still bound by regulations and other constraints, and just can’t move as quickly as other sectors are able to – in many cases, for good reason. 

And time is of the essence – many of the provisions in the legislation have deadlines. Even if they’re a decade away, it still lends urgency to the situation. In addition to strict deadlines, there are also political deadlines. Congress is already moving to claw back items from the past few years, and faces a major election only just over a year away. Although the bills are law, there are multiple ways critics could continue to undermine their original intent and funding.

So implementation is critical – in order to take advantage of the current moment, resources, and crossroads, we need the federal government to act. If they’re not able to, we’ll lose out on key benefits and growth of the coming years. 

Major Implementation Barriers 

But federal, state, and local governments face hurdles when it comes to putting these laws into action. These hurdles are not unique to the IIJA and IRA, although many agencies were not organizationally prepared for the sheer amount of funding from the bills and now struggle to catch up. Some barriers, like long rulemaking or stakeholder engagement processes, ensure that agencies stay accountable and thoroughly research program impacts. But others are more bureaucratic or technical, and need institutional streamlining, innovation, or cross-sector support. 

For example, the IRA tasked the Department of the Treasury and the IRS with rolling out a number of energy-focused tax credits. Private firms, state governments, and other targets of the credits are eager to take advantage of the benefits, as the credits have the potential to supercharge clean energy industries. However, many of the guidelines are still unclear; feedback loops are slow and cumbersome, and companies and consumers are confused about what qualifies when. 

Another example is permitting. Permitting reform is not a new issue, but the demand for new clean energy projects and the potential strain on an outdated electric grid mean that the need for better processes is dire. Long timelines, major application backlogs, and struggles to get community buy-in could prevent us from seeing the full benefits of the IRA. 

While there are many possible solutions to these bottlenecks – involving cross-sector support from companies, community-based organizations, state and local governments, and more – one of the major issues underpinning the barriers to successful implementation is simply talent. 

Why Talent?

Large injections of funding like with the IIJA and IRA without the people power to deliver on legislation can result in slow implementation, undermining the intentions of the bills. It’s not just numbers – but getting high-quality employees with technical skill sets in the door quickly. It’s true for the above examples as well. Developing guidance for tax credits requires a large number of niche experts: tax attorneys with a keen understanding of a range of clean energy technologies. Similarly with permitting, regulations change across municipalities and states, and agencies don’t have enough staff to adjudicate applications at the rate the private sector is developing projects. 

FAS has focused on talent for a number of years – our Impact Fellowship helps place that type of high-quality technical expertise where it’s needed most in government. Our forthcoming in-depth report on hiring barriers within the Department of Energy details a number of strategies DOE and other agencies can use to hire more effectively. 

DOE has been a leader in hiring specifically to support the IIJA and IRA. Its Clean Energy Corps has hired over 600 people in the past year and a half, and the agency has stood up entire new offices like the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. In the report we use the agency as an example of how these flexible hiring strategies can strengthen federal talent acquisition further and take advantage of the current momentum around climate and clean energy. 

Some of these strategies ask Congress to act – like increasing human capital budgets and expanding specific hiring authorities. But others are within the agency’s control, like using remote work flexibilities as a recruitment tool and using other authorities like the Intergovernmental Personnel Act more widely. Partnerships with outside entities, like clean energy workforce organizations, private recruitment firms, and higher education institutions can all provide talent support to agencies as well. 

These strategies are directly linked to helping DOE implement legislation more efficiently and effectively–and should be used by other agencies as well. A focus on talent and strengthening the federal workforce is necessary to take full advantage of the current moment.

Strengthening the U.S. STEM Talent Pipeline Through a National Youth Innovation Showcase

Summary

The next administration should institute a national White House Youth Innovation Showcase similar to the discontinued White House Science Fair to promote and provide new opportunities for increased K–12 participation in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). As a national platform to amplify and inspire scientific accomplishments by students of all backgrounds, the Showcase will help the next administration strengthen the U.S. STEM talent pipeline and pave the way for future growth in American science and technology industries. The Showcase will also provide an opportunity for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to facilitate public-private collaborations that provide resources for participating students and support regional initiatives to increase diversity in STEM fields. The next administration can use the announcement of the Showcase to reveal its STEM agenda, outlining its policies to support STEM education and a diverse STEM workforce while articulating how its STEM goals will support emerging technology industries and overall economic development.