Growing Colombia’s Clean Energy Workforce

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Photo courtesy of Dennis Schroeder, NREL.

Labor shortages in the US, particularly in the solar industry, are delaying clean energy projects across the country. Colombia, which is starting to see rapid deployment of clean energy projects and considerable government investment, will need to transition its labor force from the oil and coal industry into clean energy professions. In Latin America, which has preexisting conditions that strain the existing labor market, the need for a large-scale skilled labor force to install solar and wind projects may delay the transition to renewables. A 2021 report by the International Labor Organization found that “unemployment and decline in labor force participation are persistent.” The jobs that have come since the pandemic have disproportionately been informal positions. Large-scale wind and solar farms, such as those needed to diversify the energy matrix in Colombia, require a trained workforce. Colombia, due to its continued reliance on fossil fuels and hydroelectric projects, does not have such a workforce at this time, but could create one with strong transition policies from carbon jobs to clean energy jobs.

The transition to renewable energy gives Colombia the opportunity to reduce emissions while giving high-paying jobs to Colombian workers. Between 2019 and 2021, Colombia awarded 4.5 gigawatts of solar and onshore wind power projects which are expected to be completed over the course of the next 5 years. These projects, along with offshore wind and green hydrogen initiatives, are expected to generate 120,000 high-paying jobs. However, this will require both training a workforce in a new field while also providing incentives for workers to switch out of the oil and natural gas industry.

A potential solution to this problem can be found in an article written by Diego Mesa Puyo, the former Minister of Energy and Mines, and published by Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Mesa writes, “Drawing lessons from the US experience, Colombia can focus on anticipating labor needs in renewable energy and clean technologies ahead of time to ensure that worker training programs are well targeted and appropriately funded.” Mesa expands on these policies with several steps that the government should take. The first is to raise the carbon tax, using some of the increased revenue to retrain workers in the low-wage carbon energy jobs to work more skilled, lower-emission jobs. This should be combined with either an earned income tax credit or cash-transfers to low income households will reduce inequality, particularly in regions that would be most affected by the loss of fossil fuel jobs.

Anand Subbaraj, CEO and Founder of Zuper, a workforce management software company that specializes in clean energy companies, offered a similar response to limited workforce in the clean energy space. Subbaraj agreed that the first thing that countries must do is invest in training programs, so as to develop worker expertise in engineering, construction, and installation. Secondly, providing subsidies to workers to switch jobs will lessen the transition period and attract a talented workforce. Lastly, Subbaraj encourages partnerships between the public and private sector to develop training programs and create jobs. Over the next decade, Colombia has the opportunity to diversify its energy matrix, reduce its carbon emissions, and provide high-paying and stable jobs to its population at the same time. In order to do this, however, they will need to provide opportunities for retraining, as well as financial support to ease the transition to new jobs.

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Otto Gunderson

Otto graduated from the University of Virginia class of 2022 with a degree in history. He has been involved in clean energy, specifically solar and circular economic practices, for four years now and has been writing about clean energy for 2 years. Due to a lack of writing on the clean energy transitions in South America and Africa, Otto decided to spend his 2023 traveling across these continents, interviewing clean energy entrepreneurs, researchers, and disruptors and publishing their stories.

Otto Gunderson has 31 posts and counting. See all posts by Otto Gunderson