Who Will Do the Jobs of the Future? Educating Workers for the Green Economy Today

Recent federal and state policies are creating momentum for combating climate change by tying a clean energy transition to job growth: recent federal infrastructure legislation, for example, along with state-level laws such as the new Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act. However, if these policies are to help decarbonize the economy quickly, then more people will need to be educated and trained to meet the growing demand for skilled workers in this emerging labor market.

Fields as diverse as clean energy and transportation, green construction, environmental management, and agriculture have all shown growth in recent years, and are predicted to continue to do so. The so-called “greening” of existing and established careers is also underway, as industries respond to public demand for environmentally sustainable corporate practices, adopt new technologies, and think differently about the environmental impact of their everyday work.

In October 2021, MDRC and JobsFirstNYC convened 30 stakeholders from locations across the country to discuss how career and technical education (CTE) and workforce development programs can train people for green careers. JobsFirstNYC is an intermediary (a type of nonprofit organization whose role is to connect people and organizations across sectors) that co-launched and supports the New York City–based Green Economy Network and invests in sustainable workforce development in the city. Forum attendees agreed on four broad principles that will equitably prepare young people for the green and sustainable jobs emerging now and into the foreseeable future:

  1. Increase employer engagement
  2. Emphasize equity in recruitment and training
  3. Retool all education and training to be green
  4. Draw on existing resources so programs can be expanded rapidly

Increase Employer Engagement

A perennial challenge in the development of high-quality CTE programs has been coordinating secondary education, postsecondary education, and employment training programs with employer needs. The 2018 Perkins V law, which provides federal CTE funding, has addressed the issue by giving incentives for aligning CTE programs with local labor market needs. The coordination challenge is magnified, however, when it comes to green jobs, because the jobs that exist now are only a fraction of those that are expected to emerge.

Frank Ciampa from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority summed up this scenario when he said: “We have to share what we know about the variety of clean energy jobs necessary for this transition. Matching employers with prospective job candidates won’t be as easy as flipping a light switch. There's demand for many professional skills to contribute on projects being designed right now. This demand will continue to expand as more projects get underway across New York State.”

Patricia DelToro Heck, JobsFirstNYC board member, also noted that educators need help from employers to define the skills employers need, inform curricula, and provide internships.

Mike Conway from Stacks+Joules, a nonprofit employment training organization that focuses on smart building infrastructure and technology, said that getting employers to see the organization as a viable source of talent requires targeting specific job-related skills. He also emphasized that providing enough talent for a growing green economy requires expanding the types of pathways to success, including CTE, community college, and direct workforce development.

Kathleen Carson from the Seattle Jobs Initiative felt that industry partnerships need clearer expectations. “Employer investment in training has been flat, which has put the onus on individuals to seek out and pay for training. We need to change our expectations of what industry brings to the table,” she said.

Better alignment across sectors could accelerate the expansion of CTE and training for the green workforce of the future. Schools and training programs need a better understanding of the skills students need now and will need in the future, combined with professional development to help educators impart those skills. Meanwhile, employers need to commit to relationships with schools, community colleges, and other workforce training organizations to develop workers in the long term.

Emphasize Equity in Recruitment and Training

Residents of low-income communities are already disproportionately affected by climate change due to a host of factors. For example, low-income neighborhoods often have fewer shade trees and homes that are built with lower construction standards that make them hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. In addition, these communities are often near sources of pollution that exacerbate health risks.

It is important to build a green economy that provides opportunities for people with lower incomes, both to provide them access to high-wage jobs with prospects for economic mobility and to engage members of communities that will benefit the most from mitigating climate change.

Doing so means diversifying the stakeholders at all levels, from strategy and planning to recruitment for education and training programs. “A just economy really involves a much broader level of effort. Who are the stakeholders we need to work with?” asked Tara Stafford Ocansey, senior education technology specialist at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Forum participants discussed the importance of ensuring that diversity is a central program mission. One strategy is to focus on the development of students’ self-images by creating opportunities for students to “really see themselves working in these industries. These are creative fields and well-paying fields that people can go into,” said Diallo Shabazz, executive director of the New York State P-TECH Leadership Council, which helps organize the P-TECH schools of New York State.

One way to equitably align the interests of young people with careers in the green economy may be to engage them in local environmental projects. Brigitte Griswold from Yonkers’ Groundwork, which offers youth summer programs in conservation to students from communities with lower incomes, said that the program often inspires students to pursue careers and college majors in environmental fields.

Retool All Education and Training to Be Green

Green jobs are sometimes defined as those needed for a clean energy transition, jobs such as solar installers and wind turbine technicians. But a robust green economy will require both people trained in new occupations and those trained to do existing jobs in ways that account for their environmental impact. Max Levitzke from Solar One, a student and adult education and training program, said, “We need to shift away from the idea of ‘green jobs’ as their own category. Instead, industries outside of just the climate and energy space should start focusing more broadly on how to make all jobs sustainable and more energy-efficient in order to make a real difference.”

This approach also requires a long-term investment in sustainability-focused education. Tara Stafford Ocansey suggested “embedding and integrating sustainability and specific skills across curricula.”

Scott Ralls, president of Wake Tech Community College, also emphasized the need for ongoing investment in educator training while reflecting on the North Carolina Community College System’s decade-old investment in making curricula greener system-wide. (For more, see MDRC’s brief on this program.) He said there needs to be “sustainability of your sustainability efforts. We didn’t continue the professional development [that was an initial part of the program]. There are remnants of faculty who were trained remaining, but we didn’t keep it moving forward.”

Group consensus suggested that overhauling education and workforce training to meet the demands of a sustainable economy requires a vision of how this economic transition will affect all aspects of work. Strong education, industry, and government partnerships and curricula are needed.

Draw on Existing Knowledge and Resources so Programs Can Be Expanded Rapidly

Existing education and training programs can be slow to respond to changing labor market needs. To respond rapidly to the urgency of the moment, programs should draw on existing evidence and data to make changes that are likely to lead to successful outcomes.

Chris Collins, former executive director of Solar One, suggested that wage subsidies can give employers an incentive to provide equitable access to jobs. Several MDRC studies have found that subsidized employment can help people by placing them into jobs quickly. MDRC is also currently evaluating a U.S. Departments of Labor and Treasury program that provides training in clean-energy jobs for people with low wages, with an interim report on the program expected in 2023.

On-the-job training, which “really encourages earning and learning while on the job so as to reduce any time outside of work,” can also be successful, said Gwendolyn Bluemich of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.

Finally, participants emphasized that it is important for programs to have access to comprehensive data on expected national and regional labor market growth in each sector. Programs need reliable information about in-demand skills to help people stay current or train for new careers.                                            


The education and training sectors need to prepare young people for the labor market of the clean energy transition, as well as shifting relationships between work and sustainability. It will be challenging, but practitioners and experts in the field agreed that the field can do it by sticking to core principles such as strong employer partnerships, equity, and evidence. These principles can help guide the CTE and workforce development fields toward programs that benefit students, the workforce, and the environment.