Authors: Joshua Stehr (Research Lead, WoCl); Eugene Kirpichov (Executive Director, WoCl)
Researchers: Joshua Stehr; Stephanie Lau and Micha Nicheva (Researchers, WoCl)
Contributing Editors: Inbal Nachman (Director of Programs, WoCl); Amy Sandoz (Consultant)
At Work On Climate, we’ve been deeply engaged in building the workforce needed to solve climate change equitably and justly. Our goal has always been to build a community strong enough to bridge the gap between education, workforce development, and climate solutions. As part of our ongoing work, we recently held a workshop during New York Climate Week to kick off collaboration on accelerating the advanced STEM talent pipeline for the clean economy, and conducted a research project to set the stage for this effort. We interviewed 15 industry leaders about their perspective on the specific challenges and reasons behind them. This research brief is the result of those conversations.
First things first, let’s talk about our methodology and synthesis process before we dive into our core findings.
For this project we conducted 30-minute interviews with 15 experts broadly familiar with hiring challenges in their area of climate tech, including 3 cleantech field-building organizations and professional communities, 2 organizations focused on commercializing cleantech, 2 cleantech recruiting agencies, 4 VC investors, and a college professor of biomanufacturing. We have also reviewed 8 existing pieces of research on cleantech talent challenges and several job boards focused on these roles. We followed the below synthesis process:
Humanity needs to build a workforce for the clean economy faster than any industry has ever built a workforce. The workforce needed to meet global climate goals is estimated1 to include hundreds of millions of new workers in the next 10 years (compared to software, which took 40 years to get to 25 million people). This transition is a chance to “do it right” and build an equitable workforce that can rapidly deploy just climate solutions across every economic sector while bringing enormous new economic opportunities to all.
“[Investments] in the Inflation Reduction Act will create more than 9 million jobs over the next decade—an average of nearly 1 million jobs each year” [editor’s note: this is just new jobs, just in the US, just from the IRA, and just over the next decade]“A User Guide to the Inflation Reduction Act”, BlueGreen Alliance, 2022
“One of the key objectives in the food tech industry is to replace something like conventional store-bought chicken with environmentally sustainable alternatives that excel in taste and quality. To achieve this on a commercial scale, the magnitude of production facilities and the requisite workforce will be substantial.”Douglas Bruce, Biomanufacturing Professor at Laney College & Visiting Professor at Pow.bio
The new clean industries need advanced STEM workers, in roles from electrochemists to thermofluidics engineers. According to the experts we interviewed:
Among experts we interviewed, the most commonly cited in-demand role and skill was electrochemistry – the basic science underlying batteries, solar cells, fuel cells, and the conversion of carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful products.
“We’ve made a lot of investments in the electrochemistry space, so we have a pretty significant demand for electric chemists, and sourcing and identifying them is really challenging, and honestly, I expect it to continue to be a challenge as battery technology innovations and other things of that nature come about.”Andrew, Cleantech Investor
People with “middle skills” like lab technicians, research associates, and manufacturing technicians are also needed for scaling many climate solutions but are often overlooked.
“For every principal scientist, you need about five to seven lab technicians – and that’s the base of your workforce. However … companies tend to focus on hiring for four-year degrees, even at the base of their workforce where it’s not necessarily needed. That’s where these community college programs come in.”Douglas Bruce, Biomanufacturing Professor at Laney College & Visiting Professor at Pow.bio
Lack of diversity in the climate workforce is a serious challenge and self-perpetuating cycle. In addition to perpetuating economic inequality, it severely limits the long-term talent pool, making talent shortages harder to solve. According to experts interviewed, building a diverse team is among the biggest challenges for cleantech companies.
“Many of my clients have goals and values of building and maintaining diverse senior leadership and executive teams and that’s another big challenge that I don’t want to understate.”Sabrina Dove, Owner & Executive Recruiter at Pacific Search Firm, a Climate Tech Recruitment Firm
“One of the biggest challenges we have in STEM fields is attracting female talent for our portfolio, and it can really quickly skew inside of a startup when all of a sudden you’ve hired five men and then the challenge of bringing a woman in to be one of six becomes harder and harder the further down that road you get.”Andrew, Cleantech Investor
The clean skilled trades workforce appears to be suffering from an even more acute lack of diversity, some roles being 95%+ male and anecdotally highly unwelcoming to women, vividly demonstrating the effect of limiting the available talent pool for entire industries. Data on racial diversity in advanced STEM employment in cleantech is difficult to find, but funding is one proxy, where less than 1% of all cleantech venture funding goes to Black-led organizations (representative of similar trends in tech broadly).
Talent shortages are beginning to stall progress in more established industries like battery storage and EVs. These shortages not only slow down company growth but also cause unsustainable staff workloads.
“A lack of battery engineers is cited by 38% of respondents as the top reason for inefficiencies in existing battery processes.”Voltaiq, Preparing for the Electrification Tsunami, 2019
Hiring difficulties affect the ability of companies to hit milestones and secure funding and cause current staff to take on unsustainable workloads.
“Every day you go without that position filled is more of a headache for the people that are already working there because they’re picking up more slack… Also, companies are losing money, because you have goals, and for every person you don’t hire, you’re falling behind.”Eric Till, Founder of ClimaTalent
Some companies reach early success but hit blockers in finding the talent needed for their next stage of scaling, hindering the potential of the company and the funding put into it.
“Founders hire their friends. That can go a pretty long way – it could go into late seed or even Series A. … A lot of the companies I deal with, once they get A or B funding, they will run out of friends.”Philip Li, Cleantech Investor
Talent shortages are expected to get more acute as climate policy and investment unlock more growth. In some roles, such as electrochemists and highly skilled project finance specialists, the supply is already almost exhausted, indicated by skyrocketing salaries and poaching from competitors as the main hiring strategy.
“If any of these companies take off, you’ll probably outstrip the supply of the researchers in that world [electrochemistry] pretty quickly.”Philip Li, Cleantech Investor
Prioritizing workforce development based solely on the expected total number of future jobs is insufficient. Often, an industry’s ability to grow and create new roles depends on filling a smaller number of critical and highly specialized positions first.
“Carbon removal is going to be a trillion-dollar industry in the next 27 years. But it’s in its infancy today. Just in terms of sheer numbers, I don’t know how many jobs there are in carbon removal exactly this year or last year, but it’s on the order of 300, maybe 500 jobs total. We have to find a small number of critical roles today and be ready to grow like crazy.”Tito Jankowski, CEO of AirMiners, Carbon removal community and accelerator
Cleantech-specific talent shortages are heightened by short-term market pressures and competition from incumbent industry giants. Growing clean industries face stiff competition from big oil, big pharma, and big tech.
“Right out of university, students are going to come out making $100k-120k a year, maybe even $150k a year, working for a company like Google or some chemical company or the oil and gas industry. Our companies are not going to be able to pay that level of compensation for that same talent.”Andrew, Cleantech Investor
“A significant population of graduate STEM students want to leave academia and … become technologists. [Some] end up working for tech giants like Facebook. Is there a way to intervene earlier to push them into climate tech?…”A Cleantech Commercialization Advisor
“Entrepreneurs look for opportunities in near-term business, while the nature of the research we’re working on extends longer term, 10-15 years from now…Folks self-select out of working with our technologies because it’s such a different space.”A Cleantech Commercialization Advisor
Companies’ ability to build out their teams in the long term is hindered by excessively narrow or short-term hiring practices, incentivized by market pressures. There is not a lot of opportunity for building new skills within companies because priority is given to finding senior staff with no succession plans or structures for upskilling junior/mid-weight talent.
“It’s a challenge for early-career professionals to demonstrate that they have the education and skill sets needed…like in any emerging space, people want the senior folks first.”Anna Yee, Women in Cleantech and Sustainability Board Member
“Companies tend to focus on hiring for four-year degrees, even at the base of their workforce where it’s not necessarily needed.”Douglas Bruce, Biomanufacturing Professor at Laney College & Visiting Professor at Pow.bio
“I heard from employers at the conference that they are in the mindset that they have to poach talent from other companies. [Rather than] working with training programs to develop the talent, they’re comfortable offering a higher salary to someone who’s already experienced….”Douglas Bruce, Biomanufacturing Professor at Laney College & Visiting Professor at Pow.bio
The cleantech talent shortages and diversity issues are reflective of broader STEM issues.
STEM shortages in cleantech are likely exacerbated by broader STEM shortages.
“The U.S. is projected to have a shortage of up to 3.5 million STEM workers by 2025.”“The STEM skills gap” (HR Forecast, 2023)
“Despite the growth of emerging industries and additional funding efforts, the U.S.’s ability to lead in these fields is being hindered by a diminished skilled workforce and barriers to recruiting top-tier talent from around the world.”“Strengthening America’s Competitiveness and Security by Welcoming more Immigrants with STEM Skills” (FWD, 2023)
The same is likely the case for racial and gender disparities in STEM and in cleantech.
“African Americans make up 11% of the total U.S. workforce but only 7% of all are in STEM. Hispanics are 17% of the workforce but only 7% of all are STEM workers.”“Addressing the STEM workforce shortage” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 2022)
“Women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce but only 27% of STEM workers.”“Women making gains in STEM occupations but still underrepresented”, (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021)
The climate talent challenge affects the entire economy and requires a rapid and proportionately sized response. We have a historic opportunity to lead a transition to a clean economy that benefits everyone.
While this research brief covered challenges in advanced STEM roles, a lot of the insights echo what we’re hearing informally about other highly skilled roles – such as corporate sustainability leadership roles. We plan to conduct a deep dive into those areas later this year. Other types of roles, such as skilled labor, may face different types of challenges and require a different approach.
We believe that we can collectively meet all of these challenges if every part of the education and workforce development ecosystem, climate solutions ecosystem, government, labor, and the private sector work together, speak the same language, and look in the same direction.
Read on to learn about our Industry Workshop, where we dove deeper into these challenges and envisioned paths to solving them!