UC Berkeley Study Highlights Diversity Of California’s Renewables Workforce


A new study from the Center for Labor Research and Education at UC Berkeley is highlighting disadvantaged and underrepresented workers’ prevalence in entry-level, “career-track” jobs in the construction of renewable energy projects in California.

According to UC Berkeley, the impact of California’s climate policies on jobs and equity has been an important concern for state decision-makers, including the legislature’s current debates on S.B.100, which sets a goal of 100% clean energy by 2045. The study, “Diversity in California’s Clean Energy Workforce,” addresses with quantitative data the question of who is getting into jobs and apprentice training programs in the construction of renewables.

The report examines data for the ethnic, racial and gender composition of enrollment in state-certified apprenticeship programs for the electrician, ironworker and operating engineer unions, which have worked on the majority of renewable energy plants built in California from 2002-2017. The report authors also looked at wage and residence data on the electrical workers employed on 27 solar power plants in Kern County from 2012-2017 to determine how many were living in disadvantaged communities as designated by the California Environmental Protection Agency – those most burdened by pollution and most vulnerable to its effects, based on socioeconomic factors and health indicators.

Carol Zabin, co-author of the report and director of the Green Economy Program, says, “The data we have examined shows that joint union-employer apprenticeship programs have helped people of color get training and career-track jobs building California’s clean energy infrastructure. Construction jobs in utility-scale renewables are good jobs, so these programs provide workers a path to the middle class.”

Key findings in the report include as follows:

  • More than half (60%) of those entering these apprenticeship programs are people of color.
  • New apprentices’ racial and ethnic diversity varies significantly among unions for electricians, ironworkers and operating engineers. While Latinos make up a little over one-third of California’s labor force, they represent more than half of all new apprentice ironworkers (53%), just over one-third (34%) of electrical workers and one-fifth (23%) of operating engineers. While African-Americans are 6% of the statewide labor force, they make up 4% of new apprentice electricians, 6% of ironworkers and 9% of operating engineers.
  • The inclusion of veterans in these apprenticeship programs is higher in all three trades than in the state’s workforce as a whole.
  • Despite the progress for other groups, women’s participation in apprenticeship programs remains minimal, mirroring the rest of California’s construction industry.
  • Data from the 27 solar power plants built in Kern County in 2012-2017 shows that 43% of entry-level workers live in disadvantaged communities, and 47% live in communities with unemployment rates of at least 13%.
  • On the 27 solar projects in Kern County, starting pay for entry-level panel installers in 2016 was $16.12/hour plus $50/day for travel. First-year apprentices started at $16.49/hour plus full benefits and receive wage increases as they move through their five-year training program. They graduate as journey electricians, earning more than $40 per hour.

According to the report, California’s progress toward inclusion in good, career-track clean energy jobs has occurred because most large-scale renewable energy plants have been built under project labor agreements. These agreements require union wage and benefit standards and provide free training through apprenticeship programs, creating a pathway upward for workers.

UC Berkeley adds that the significant diversity in renewable construction jobs is a result of recruitment efforts by unions and the location of many renewable power plants in Kern County and other areas in southern and central California where there are high concentrations of disadvantaged communities. Further inclusion can be supported by specific programs such as publicly funded pre-apprenticeship programs and local or targeted hire agreements.

“The renewables portfolio standard in California has played a crucial role in driving this growth, and future progress is likely if the legislature approves S.B.100,” concludes Zabin.

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