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Monday, November 15, 2010

Educating the Energy Generation: Workforce Needs in Renewable, Nuclear Power Sectors

By Jesse Jenkins, originally at the Breakthrough Institute

Today, the race for dominance in clean energy technology sectors pits the United States against the greatest international competition for a key emerging technology field than in any era since the Cold War race to lead in aerospace, computing, communications, and IT fields.

Remaining competitive in the fast-growing, 21st century clean energy sectors will demand the same world-class talent and highly-trained workforce that helped the United States lead the world in the high-tech sectors of the 20th century.

As we wrote in "Post-Partisan Power," a road map for a limited and direct national energy innovation strategy recently released by Breakthrough Institute and scholars at the Brookings Institution and American Enterprise Institute:

The United States cannot hope to rise to this global challenge or confront pressing energy innovation imperatives without a new national investment to train and inspire the next generation of intrepid American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Today, the United States ranks just 29th out of 109 countries in the percentage of 24-year-olds with a math or science degree.47 Only 15 percent of undergraduate degrees in the United States are earned in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields compared with 64 percent in Japan and 52 percent in China. Even South Korea -- a nation with a population one-sixth the size of the United States -- graduates more engineers annually.

The situation is particularly dire in energy technology, with roughly half of the U.S. energy industry workforce expected to retire over the next decade. Meanwhile, demand for workers in the renewable electricity industry is expected to more than triple from 127,000 in 2006 to more than 400,000 in 2018. The anticipated, large-scale ramp-up of the U.S. nuclear power industry would similarly require the industry to hire tens of thousands of new nuclear engineers and related positions annually. Yet today, from elementary school through post-doctorate programs, students and educators lack the resources to develop new curricula and educational programs, receive key training, or expand research opportunities to meet this national challenge.
A recent blog post from nuclear engineer Rod Adams at points us to some new figures that can help fill in the details for the workforce needs of the nuclear power sector.
Over the next five years, 38 percent of the current nuclear industry work force employed at the nation's 104 operating plant will be eligible for retirement, leaving a shortfall of more than 25,000 skilled workers. In addition, each new nuclear plant will create up to 2,400 temporary and highly-paid positions over the five-year construction period and 400-to-800 new permanent careers.
The workforce training and competitiveness challenges are clear. But the United States has overcome such challenges in the past.

After the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the United States swiftly enacted the National Defense Education Act of 1958, leveling national investments totaling $7.2 billion over four years (in today's dollars), to support K-12 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, establish university programs in computer science, aerospace, and other new fields across the nation, and train the generation of innovators and entrepreneurs that led the IT Revolution.

In "Post-Partisan Power," we propose a comparatively modest, yet equally critical national commitment of roughly $500 million annually for energy education to support K-12 curriculum and teacher training, energy education scholarships, post- doctoral fellowships, and graduate research grants. This proposal builds on an earlier call from the Breakthrough Institute for a National Energy Education Act.

You can find more detailed recommendations for energy education and workforce training investments in the full "Post-Partisan Power" report available here (pdf).

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