Advanced STEM talent is one of the most critical parts of the climate talent puzzle – many if not most climate solutions, from energy storage to alternative proteins, need more scientific breakthroughs and engineering advances. Only people with highly specialized skills can make that happen, and those people are in woefully short supply, made worse by the lack of diversity.
Already from our preliminary research it was clear that the causes and solutions of this problem are systemic, located in places from from middle schools, to national labs, education regulators, and policymakers, to employers themselves. No single stakeholder has a full picture of the problem, much less the power to solve it single-handedly.
In line with our Roadmap to Making Climate Work Mainstream, we convened an industry workshop at Climate Week NYC 2023 around this problem – our first big step towards developing the Climate Workforce Coalition – an industry body that will accelerate the climate talent transition.
“The problem is bigger than I thought and will require creative involvement from actors across the economy.”Workshop participant
Read on to learn about our industry workshop and takeaways from the collective discussion:
7. What’s next?
This year New York Climate Week included many events dedicated to the climate talent transition, from events put together by mechanical engineering and law professional bodies to events focused on the education system as a whole. A sentiment echoed by many was, “the time of the climate workforce has come.”
Workshop participants included almost 40 representatives from national labs, philanthropic funders, industry bodies, climate accelerators, federal and state governments, climate startups and established companies, universities and community colleges, educational regulatory authorities, and others. 58% of the attendees were women or non-binary, and 50% were people of color.
We created a solution-oriented, yet heart-centered environment – group norms emphasized mutual care and equal participation (for example, name tags intentionally omitted organizations and titles), and exercises focused on questions like “What is beautiful about the advanced STEM talent ecosystem right now?” and “How might we build on that to create the things that do not yet exist?”
Attendee feedback was overwhelmingly positive (some called it “the best-facilitated event they’ve attended at New York Climate Week” or “the best workshop they’ve ever been to”)! Attendees especially appreciated the open environment focused on constructive discussions and solutions engineering.
“I’ve noticed that each stakeholder was very eager to engage and contribute while also incorporating the opinions of others.”Workshop participant
The feedback highlighted that the full scale and complexity of the problem is new even to many people and organizations already working on supporting the climate workforce. People came into the workshop each holding a piece of the puzzle, and came out with the full puzzle.
“As someone who runs a climate-based fellowship, I wasn’t aware of the exact gaps that exist in the talent pipeline.”Fellowship program manager at a climate accelerator
“Funders are still not fully aware of the talent challenges and how expensive it really is to re-skill the workforce.”Operations leader at a chemical company
Read on to learn about the collective vision of solutions that we produced at the workshop.
Imagine for a moment that we have built a time machine that can transport us into one of the possible future timelines. We set it to 2033 and press “Go”.
We’re in luck! While in this timeline climate change still hasn’t quite been solved yet, talent just isn’t a big bottleneck anymore. Companies building climate solutions are full of skilled and passionate people. We begin walking around and carefully documenting everything we see with a video camera.
Climate work is mainstream. Something is conspicuously absent: the climate silo. Jobs in the clean economy are known simply as “jobs”, and “climate” is no longer a major category per se. Instead, for the most part, the needs of climate solutions are integrated into every part of education and workforce development, and there are additional specialized organizations and programs supporting specific niches, such as energy storage, low-carbon steel manufacturing, or electrochemistry.
The talent ecosystem is tightly connected and collaborative. Tired of waiting for labor market signals to make their way into the annual planning cycles of notoriously slow institutions, industry and educators are working together directly, in a tight loop of constant improvement.
We see several top technical leaders of an aviation industry association in their monthly meeting with state education department officials and Deans of Engineering from big-name schools and HBCUs, debating the most important mechanical engineering skills for building electric planes, while a grassroots climate advocacy organization compiles talking points for their next campaign on promoting science education in disadvantaged communities.
At a manufacturing conference, a tech journalist is interviewing the leaders of a major low-carbon cement company and a community development organization about their new joint diverse leadership development program for formulation chemists. A crowd of drilling engineers gathers around, eager to hear the CEO spill the secrets of her company’s reportedly groundbreaking on-site carbon capture tech.
All roads lead into climate – and there are many roads. As we interview the advanced STEM workers in the new clean industries and ask them “How did you end up in this job? How did you learn these skills?”, about half the time, especially with young people, the answer we hear is really nothing special.
“I saw them at a conference and then they did an internship program with my school”, “They taught some basic soil science in my biochemistry class and my career counselor said that regen ag is where it’s at for someone like me”. Some mention how they liked to play with wind farm legos, or how they got really into heat pumps after a high school physics project.
The other half of the time – we notice that it’s more common with older workers and people from more unusual or challenging backgrounds – we hear stories of well-supported nonlinear career trajectories.
“I worked in medicinal chemistry for a while and was ready for something new. I’m a single mom with a mortgage, and can’t really afford any financial risk or interruption in income. Luckily, I saw on TV that our state had this program where they’d pay me a stipend to learn electrochemistry, and then give a guaranteed job with one of ten battery companies as long as I pass the accreditation exam. It’s pretty cool.”
“I’m a pipeline engineer and worked in oil and gas back in the day, and my union rep told me that geothermal is going to be really big for people like me. So my friends pointed me to some online classes and then I found an apprenticeship with this company and they were really appreciative of my skills.”
Employers optimize their hiring practices for diversity and career mobility. We ask employers how they are coping with their rapid growth and quickly changing hiring needs.
“First of all, we had to really make sure to create an inclusive culture. We can’t afford to have only a fraction of the talent pool want to work with us, so we focused on hiring and retaining diverse leadership from the beginning, and designed our operations for remote work. We have a network of small mobile labs to help with that.” – says the head of a refrigerant management company.
A Head of Training at a cultured meat company chimes in, “There is a breakthrough in our industry every month, we don’t expect candidates to be up to date with all recent research – we just look for people with a close-enough basic science background or a good portfolio of projects, and train them up. We’re even partnering with some of our competitors, especially on external training programs – we need a bigger pie of talent, poaching people from each other just stops working at some point.”
It’s time to go back. Now that we’ve seen what could be, we must return to today’s world and do all in our power to make this timeline a reality. We set the machine back to 2023 and press “Go.”
This is a beautiful and ambitious vision. But how can we get there – what barriers will we have to overcome, and what will help us navigate this path?
“Quite simply there is a huge gap between where we need to be to address the climate crisis and where we are in terms of preparing the next workforce.”Workshop participant
Today, climate work is far from being mainstream – it is a new concept to much of the ecosystem, and some important stakeholders are hardly bought into the idea at all – for example, oil and gas workers, whose incredible engineering talent is critically needed.
Our current education system is poorly equipped for rapid and widespread change. At present, the educational landscape is a mosaic of standards and practices. Introducing changes, such as new curriculum standards for technical subjects, requires navigating a labyrinth of accreditors, ranging from state and regional regulators to specialized professional entities.
Priorities of our education system do not match the needs of cleantech. The current education system prioritizes remediation at the earlier levels and academic publications at the highest levels, while the clean economy demands something different from both: pragmatic innovation.
Beyond the bureaucratic complexities, the politics of education further complicate change. Different regions come with their own set of political beliefs, biases, and pressures, often stalling or redirecting meaningful educational reforms.
Limited resources are another big barrier. Many teachers are already overextended with day-to-day work, and expecting them to execute rapid reform may be a big ask – especially in underserved communities where schools grapple with chronic underfunding.
New industries grapple with catch-22’s regarding talent development. At an early stage they need highly skilled leaders, but they lack the infrastructure or expertise to train more junior talent, limiting their options to competing for a small pool of senior talent trained by incumbent industries or relying on the already strained education system. The pathways for mid-career individuals to upskill or for those without advanced degrees to enter the field remain scarce.
Companies face a similar catch-22 with workforce diversity. Establishing a truly inclusive culture is especially hard for early-stage companies operating with time pressure and on shoestring budgets. Finding diverse talent takes more work in the short term, but failing to do that work severely limits their talent pool in the long run.
For a major change to make its way into classrooms, it has to pass through layers of bureaucracy and power structures. Convincing those stakeholders is especially hard when it’s difficult to predict which specific clean sub-industries will grow rapidly and which specific skills they’ll require. In such work, a high level of trust and seamless communication are table stakes – but right now the climate solutions ecosystem and the education system live in separate silos and know little about each other.
The broader political environment, entrenched power structures, income and opportunity disparities, and insufficient workforce development funding further magnify these barriers: we have a lot of work to do.
Despite the significant barriers in front of us, a lot of the ingredients for making our vision a reality are available – and the vision, if successful, is highly appealing to many stakeholders.
There’s a significant pool of STEM talent both in academia and in traditional industries. Many workers are incentivized to work in clean industries, either due to an interest in mission-driven work (especially young workers) or simply due to the economic opportunity. Climate solutions are receiving funding, and some roles, especially those with a severe worker shortage, are very high-paid.
There are proven models for facilitating workforce migration, such as internships, fellowships, and apprenticeships. Several current trends also play in our favor, such as remote work (cheaper for the employer while offering more workers access to the opportunity), increased career mobility, emergence of non-traditional career pathways, and more interest in entrepreneurship. The AI revolution gives a blueprint: many people entering the space are experienced workers taking bootcamps or self-studying, with a huge global community of learners around AI topics.
Employers have an obvious incentive to solve the talent shortage. Working with a limited talent pool and poaching senior talent from each other only goes so far. Companies are also increasingly recognizing that they need a diverse workforce – both for access to a wider talent pool, and for increased capacity for innovation.
Some of the advancements in policy, investment, and public discourse around climate solutions also play in our favor. In the past year, more and more actors are beginning to explicitly support the workforce in climate with initiatives such as American Climate Corps, CREST, the Siemens Foundation’s EV workforce development project, work by professional societies such as the ASME, and many others. A strong community of leading institutions is forming around the climate workforce, and we at Work On Climate see our role in the ecosystem as helping this community grow and be more effective.
Given where we are today, what is a realistic path to collectively achieving the vision above, using the resources and trends we identified to overcome the barriers?
We think that this path can be described as having three stages. We focus our description on advanced STEM, but believe that the framework applies equally well in other areas of the climate workforce.
Stage 1 – First pilots. Small groups of stakeholders join forces to trial solutions to parts of the advanced STEM climate talent challenge relevant to them. Several principles are key:
For instance, in an example pilot group, climate employers concerned about their future ability to hire diverse STEM talent may work together with a school determined to help their students be employable in the new clean economy, and a local community development organization eager to bring the opportunities of STEM roles in this economy to their community – together, they might create a small but functional talent pipeline, enrolling members of the local community into specialized extracurricular STEM classes together with existing students of this school, guided by the skill needs of these employers, and offering internships with them.
Stage 2 – Pilots at scale. As the number of pilot projects grows and common themes emerge among the shapes and support needs of these projects, support structures emerge to make such pilots projects cheaper and faster to initiate and execute – such as “communities of practice” of institutions doing the pilots, consultancies helping organizations with such projects, and shared funding pools.
Our aim with the Climate Workforce Coalition is to pilot the creation of some of these support structures.
Stage 3 – Integration. As the pilot projects demonstrate which approaches are viable, some of these approaches get integrated into “business as usual” for ecosystem stakeholders. For instance, a state education department might decide to integrate battery chemistry into the requirements for a chemistry curriculum, or a coalition of airlines might spin up a permanent training institution for electric plane engineers.
These solutions will be operating on a larger scale and a longer-term basis, and will need their own support structures, optimized for scaling proven approaches rather than scaling experimentation. These structures may be an evolution of the structures that supported pilot projects or may be separate from them.
We are extremely grateful to organizations that worked together with us at our Advanced STEM Talent Transition Workshop – thanks to your collective work with us, we all now have a much better understanding of the issues, a vision for a world in which these issues are solved, and a plausible path to that vision.
Today we are at step 1 of that path – in front of us lies the opportunity to create the first pilots for parts of this vision. By next year, with the insights from these pilots, we will be ready to progress to steps 2 and 3, creating an industry body to support more pilots, as well as support the scaling needs of approaches that prove viable.
We can’t wait to get started on this path together with you! Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have an interest in participating in this work – specifically: