Research News

Report details Western New York’s clean energy workforce landscape

By TRACY PUCKETT

Published June 13, 2019

Portrait of UBRI's Bart Roberts.
“Data can show broad economic trends, but employers speak to the workforce challenges in recruiting and training workers to fill the most in-demand jobs.”
Bart Roberts, associate director of research and faculty engagement
UB Regional Institute

One of five jobs in Western New York (WNY) are in industries with ties to clean energy. Yet 54 percent of workers in clean energy industries are aged 45 or older, signaling that the sector has not been effective in attracting younger workers.

These two data points skim the surface of the region’s clean energy landscape, which receives full scrutiny in the Clean Energy Workforce Assessment for Western New York. The comprehensive 54-page report details the opportunities, challenges and key considerations surrounding five subsectors of clean energy.

The report stems from an effort led by UB and Alfred State College that aims to close critical workforce gaps of the clean energy sector in Erie, Niagara, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua and Allegany counties.

The effort is possible because of a two-year, $760,000 Performance Investment Fund grant from the State University of New York (SUNY), via New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Climate Jobs NY initiative.

Liesl Folks, dean of UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, says the high-level goal of the UB-Alfred State project is to “develop a strategic framework to stay engaged with industry partners and meet their needs. The most pressing task is to develop innovative educational and training programs at our institutions.”

“It’s important for academic institutions to recognize the growth and evolution of clean energy in Western New York, and to thoroughly assess the changing workforce needs so they can adapt,” says Timothy Leyh, executive director of The Center for Industrial Effectiveness at UB, which serves as project coordinator.

Cover of a new clean energy report prepared by the UB Regional Institute.

This report stems from an effort led by UB and Alfred State College that aims to close critical workforce gaps of the clean energy sector in Western New York.

The report is the culmination of a research study led by the UB Regional Institute (UBRI) in the School of Architecture and Planning, and is the first step toward increasing learning opportunities. It consists of data provided by Invest Buffalo Niagara and feedback culled from industry.

More than 20 representatives from clean energy employers of various sizes and sectors – including private and public entities, nonprofits and government – served on the WNY Clean Energy Advisory Group by either attending focus group meetings, participating in individual interviews, or both.

“Input from local industry experts was absolutely critical to this assessment,” says Bart Roberts, associate director of research and faculty engagement at UBRI. “Data can show broad economic trends, but employers speak to the workforce challenges in recruiting and training workers to fill the most in-demand jobs.”

North Park Innovations Group CEO Bill Northrup appreciates the convening of UB and Alfred State. Reflecting on his advisory group participation, he says the project is a great start for defining issues and helping universities devise the next generation of curricula “that will take students to the level they need to be.”

As the head of a company that manufactures heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration training units and diagnostic hardware, he emphasized the importance of cross-pollination and closer connections between technician and engineering disciplines, as well as technology.

“That’s what the clean workforce has got to do now. That’s where they’re going,” Northrup says.

The next step is for project leaders to analyze the assessment data.

Alfred State College Provost Kristin Poppo says it has reaffirmed the institution’s practice of embedding clean energy knowledge and skills across technical education that support the sector. The plan is to enhance curricula and equipment “to continue to meet the needs of industry working toward a more sustainable future.”    

Talks at UB include ways to build upon an online entry-level energy course, which launched in fall 2018 in collaboration with SUNY Buffalo State, National Grid and Stony Brook University.

The two campuses are also upgrading their clean energy labs and equipment to reflect modern technologies students will encounter in the real world.

As for making the report accessible to all, Leyh believes unique takeaways will arise depending on the audience.  

“We welcome high school and BOCES administrators to examine the report and contemplate ways they can contribute,” he says. “The report is also valuable to students – and even working adults – who might need a little guidance or are restless in their careers. It certainly shows the broad array of opportunities that exist in the clean energy sector.”