When it comes to energy efficiency, most of the “buzz” focuses on the Smart Grid and renewable energy technologies. It’s probably easy for a lot of us to imagine a future where a majority of our energy comes from clean, efficient (and distributed) sources that pump that power through a streamlined, state-of-the-art electrical grid. But what if something goes wrong? What if a turbine needs to be repaired, or an inverter replaced? If there’s a hiccup in the system, will we have the trained and skilled workforce available to fix the problem?
Last week I had the chance to sit in on a teleconference with Mike Rowe, the creator and star of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and founder of mikeroweWORKS.com. Hosted by Caterpillar, the purpose of the teleconference was to explain the new partnership between the company and Rowe—a partnership with the goal of highlighting the types of important, “dirty jobs” that are performed every day throughout the nation. Jobs that, like it or not, have lost some of their post-war era luster, but not their significance: We value our paved roads, our running water, and our electrical grid, and yet the folks that make sure our infrastructure is constructed, maintained, rehabilitated, and repaired rarely find themselves in the spotlight.
But that’s about to change. One-third of the country’s skilled trade workers are over 50 and headed towards retirement. Unfortunately, at the moment, there are not enough skilled workers to fill that gap. When asked why our workforce has shifted away from careers in the skilled trades, Rowe pointed to an overall lack of awareness as to what these jobs entail and why they are so important.
“I’m not a pro, but assumptions can be made based on macro-economics, societal influences, pop-culture, and even Madison Avenue,” said Rowe; “there’s a lack of a ‘work friendly’ message. We don’t celebrate these jobs like we used to, and there’s a different sensibility of what constitutes ‘a good job.’”
Rowe went on to discuss the idea of a “communication gap” between the trades and the general public. “Essentially, there’s a universal feeling that there’s a lack of appreciation for these jobs,” he said. “The skill gap is there because there’s this communication gap. Nothing is going to get fixed until we start a conversation.”
Rowe is optimistic that the populace is ready to start talking about this issue. He pointed to his recent participation at the Boy Scouts of America’s annual Jamboree as an example of what the general public is prepared to talk about. With 100,000 in attendance, including dignitaries and heads of industry, Rowe found an audience open to, and interested in, this “skills gap” issue. And if there are ears ready for the message, “We have to figure out a way to get beyond our own shores, and, instead of just talking to industry people, we need to bring the message to fresh ears,” he said. “It’s essential to have a united voice about the skills gap and infrastructure issues—and the trades play an important role in defining this united voice.”
What do you think? How will this skills gap affect the energy industry? Will “green building” and new renewable technologies fundamentally change the required skill set for electricians, HVAC installers, and lighting technicians? And are we doing enough to encourage the next generation to consider a career as part of our energy infrastructure?
For information about the partnership between Rowe and Caterpillar, go to: www.cat.com.