Attracting the Next Workforce Generation: Actions Underway

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Attracting the Next Workforce Generation: Actions Underway


July 19, 2021


Jennifer Daw and Jeremy Stefek, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Bree Mendlin, Hydropower Foundation


Attracting the Next Workforce Generation: Actions Underway

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Article Updated October 26, 2021

How do you attract new talent when potential recruits know little about the industry or its opportunities?

With more than 120,000 new hydropower jobs projected in the coming years, will the conventional hydro and marine energy sectors of the waterpower industry be able to meet this demand?

In partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office (DOE WPTO), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and the Hydropower Foundation are evaluating waterpower-related workforce challenges, in particular, education, and then implementing programs to address these challenges.

The STEM Workforce Development project (details below) focuses on creating educational tools to help strengthen the U.S. waterpower workforce pipeline to meet these challenges head-on.

For example, the team is considering establishing a hydropower collegiate competition and has been looking for responses to an industry survey. The competition would be designed based on a model that DOE and NREL have successfully implemented for other technology sectors, including wind and marine energy. The hydropower competition would bring together bright, soon-to-be workforce entrants to solve real-world problems with partner hydropower operators and utilities. The competition organizers will target and market to 4-year university undergrads, grad students, students from trades and community colleges, and students from tribal colleges.

In addition, the team has launched two web portals: STEM for Marine Energy and STEM for Hydropower. These portals are “one-stop-shop” for information geared at inspiring the next generation of waterpower professionals, benefiting academia, industry, and the average waterpower enthusiast.

Water Power Job Opportunities Will Be Significant in the Future

In 2019, NREL released Workforce Development for U.S. Hydropower: Key Trends and Findings” to provide a brief assessment of the current U.S. hydropower industry workforce and educational programs, as well as to identify potential future workforce needs. The report was based on data collected in 2016 for the U.S. Department of Energy by Navigant Consulting and NREL, which included a 2014 survey of hydropower employers to assess future workforce needs.

As part of this project, NREL’s hydropower and marine energy Jobs and Economic Development Impact (JEDI) models are being updated to enhance hydropower economic modeling capabilities.

Under the most aggressive growth scenarios modeled using the JEDI tool, the U.S. hydropower workforce could grow to 120,000 jobs by 2030 and 158,000 by 2050. Because 26% of the hydropower workforce is 55 and older, an estimated 9,000 workers will retire from the hydropower workforce by 2030, and 13,000 will retire by 2040. Filling these positions requires education, training, and knowledge transfer pathways, particularly for jobs that are difficult to fill, such as skilled craft workers and professional workers.

Marine energy represents an opportunity to grow a new domestic workforce. For example, deploying 13,000 MW of wave energy converters off Oregon’s coast could support 5,900 installation and construction jobs, 29,000 manufacturing and supply chain jobs, and 6,800 operations and maintenance phase jobs., according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management/NREL report “Economic Impact from Large-Scale Deployment of Offshore marine and Hydrokinetic Technology in Oregon.

Job Readiness is Critical for the Future 

While awareness issues loom large in attracting a new workforce, ensuring potential recruits have the skills necessary to meet the need is a significant concern. The STEM project team reached out to U.S. post-secondary schools that include waterpower to better understand their educational programs, to inform how to help attract students to work in these sectors.

The results were staggering.

Twenty-six U.S. schools with known hydropower research participated in the curricula assessment.

  • 69% do not offer hydropower degree programs
  • 5 offer it as a specialization
  • 19 cover hydropower within other energy courses

The schools say they are seeing growing employer demand for students with hydropower education. Overall, the schools find that students are interested in renewable energy; however, generating student awareness and interest in hydropower is challenging because they view it as a “solved problem” and not as an innovative growing industry with career opportunities.

Of the 21 schools that responded to the marine energy curricula survey:

  • 4 offer marine renewable energy undergraduate or graduate degree programs
  • 8 offer it as a specialization
  • 11 do not offer a degree in marine energy
  • 12 offer a course in marine energy

The schools say they are observing an increased student interest in renewable energy and marine energy topics; however, career paths have not yet been established in marine energy, making it challenging to attract students to pursue this field.

Bridging the Gap between Industry and Academia

DOE WPTO, NREL, and the Hydropower Foundation shared the curricula assessment results with educators and industry professionals at the 2019 Waterpower STEM Workforce Summit at the National Hydropower Association’s Waterpower Week in Washington event. Industry and academia discussed ways to increase awareness of marine energy and hydropower careers as well as methods to support teachers in bringing waterpower to their classrooms.

The summit generated recommendations such as encouraging more industry professionals to participate in the classrooms, framing the message of the marine energy workforce in a bigger context of the blue economy, emphasizing the role hydropower plays as part of a renewable energy portfolio, and providing an online hub of educational resources.

In 2020, the project team continued its research into the workforce challenges of the waterpower industry by surveying U.S. post-secondary students to understand their perceptions and interest in marine energy and hydropower. While surveyed students express a strong interest in renewable energy and see waterpower as a renewable energy source, many do not see hydropower as a growing field and have a limited understanding of the marine energy industry. The students who responded often had little exposure to waterpower in school and lacked information on careers and the anticipated growth of these industries.

As a follow-on to the student survey, in 2021, the project team surveyed the U.S. waterpower industry. The 31 hydropower organizations that responded indicated that recent student hires have limited knowledge of hydropower when entering the workforce. In contrast, the 35 responding marine energy organizations indicated that while many recent student hires have limited to no understanding of the marine energy industry, there is a small percentage (17%) with extensive knowledge. In general, respondents suggested the workforce pipeline could be strengthened by increasing relevant work experiences, waterpower coursework, industry engagement in the classroom, and hands-on learning.

Responding to the Needs: STEM Workforce Development Project

The STEM Workforce Development project, funded by the WPTO, began in 2019 to address the increasing need for workforce entries or replacements within the waterpower industry. The project includes collaboration with stakeholders, industry, and academia to identify their challenges and priorities and learn how we can best support the needs of the U.S. waterpower workforce.

The project team consists of many partners beyond DOE WPTONREL, and the Hydropower Foundation. These include Mystic Aquarium, the NEED ProjectOceans First InstituteBonneville Environmental Foundation, the National Ocean Sciences BowlIKM Testing, and KidWind. Each partner contributes to the project in unique ways, from providing content for STEM educational portals, drafting waterpower curricula, conducting educational summits and workshops, and performing analysis on jobs, economics, and waterpower workforce trends.

Taking advantage of technology and a new focus on long-distance learning, the project team gathered educational materials, curricula, teach-the-teacher kits, and “day in the life” videos and housed them on the STEM for Marine Energy and STEM for Hydropower web portals.  These portals, unveiled in August 2020, were a timely product for academia after moving to a 100% virtual world due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The purpose of these portals is to be a one-stop-shop for information geared at inspiring the next generation of waterpower professionals, benefiting academia, industry, and the average waterpower enthusiast.

The team continues to gather relevant information as part of its STEM dialogue series, a virtual interactive webinar series to inform project content and direction.

This article is the first in a series describing the goals, findings, and impact of the STEM Workforce Development project. Future Powerhouse articles will include a synopsis of water STEM products, other content in the Water STEM Portal, an overview of our water power collegiate competitions, the STEM dialogues series, and Talent Development Hubs.