Opinion

The Energy Transition: How Clean Energy Offers a Sustainable Path for Veterans

Hiring for America’s military veterans might seem a success story: Before COVID-19, the unemployment rate for those who served had fallen to less than 3 percent — better even than the general public, and widely seen as the threshold for “full employment.”

But these figures obscure a troubling trend: The rate of underemployment — the number of veterans who find themselves overqualified, under-utilized or unfulfilled — is startlingly high. Nearly half of post-9/11 veterans in the civilian workforce in 2019 reported that they were overqualified for their first post-military job. A year earlier, more than two-thirds of all veteran employees reported having a job unequal to the level of skills and qualifications that they had gained in the military.

This is a complex problem — one fueled by multiple factors, each demanding a different tool and approach to fix. But while there’s no silver bullet, there is one fast-growing sector of America’s economy helping to provide a just transition and meaningful opportunity for the country’s veterans: the booming clean energy sector.

From installing solar panels to inspecting wind turbines, helping monitor advanced transmission grids to integrating smart devices, the clean energy economy is providing not only reliable, well-paying jobs, but the unique sense of fulfilment that comes from working toward a greater mission and purpose — a quality so often lacking from workplaces.

The country’s clean energy workforce of some 2.5 million people is helping make our communities safer, cleaner, healthier and more resilient by taking on the climate crisis. They’re building, monitoring and innovating devices that not only help mitigate pollution, but also help make energy more affordable while improving American national security — just some of the reasons that green energy is broadly supported on both sides of the aisle.

The oil and gas industries like to trumpet their support of veterans. The image of a bearded roughneck in a new pickup may seem, to some, to promise a new all-American identity. But these sectors, we’ve seen, are busting more than booming — layoffs in the most recent downturn last year left 107,000 people out of work, with only a fraction of those jobs expected to return. And, all the while, there are the untold health costs caused by the pollution from these fossil fuel operations.

The clean energy sector, by contrast, saw a record $500 billion in investment in 2020 — even with the pandemic. With the Biden administration and lawmakers from both red and blue states backing new green initiatives, the sector is set to see another record year in 2021.

As companies ride the clean energy boom, they’ll need a workforce to help make it reality. Veterans bring deep experience in leadership and collaboration, in working efficiently and learning on the fly, in respecting procedures and of course in safety and integrity, especially under pressure.

How to recruit this vital workforce? Companies can appeal to veterans by not only emphasizing the salaries and benefits they offer, but the sense of mission: that clean energy is helping build a sustainable, secure America and resilient local communities. Employee-resource groups within the organization can meanwhile provide a crucial source of support, helping boost both retention and wellbeing.

State and federal lawmakers can play a role, too: Policies that promise to help clean energy flourish will fuel robust jobs growth and economic investment — and, in doing so, expand the pathway for a transition from the armed forces to sustainable careers in clean energy. The military can meanwhile engage with renewable energy and clean-tech partners as it continues to invest in programs that prepare departing service members for the private sector.

America’s veterans volunteered to serve to keep our country safe. With support from our country’s clean energy companies, the green energy boom can offer the opportunity to continue that important work — reliably, safely and prosperously — here at home.

Allan Abela is the co-founder of EPC Power, a San Diego-based smart inverter manufacturer, and served five years in the United States Navy, last serving on the USS Harry S. Truman.

Dan Misch is a U.S. Navy veteran and the founder and co-director of the Veterans Advanced Energy Project.

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