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Ramping up, the clean-tech industry casts a wide net for green-collar workers

June 22, 2008 | 12:46 pm

Times staff writer Edward Silver, who keeps a close eye on green-investing trends, looks at the challenges, opportunities and need for skills in green-collar employment:

Your mission, should you decide to accept it: Direct the design of a carbon capture and storage system at a coal-burning power plant. Make sure it can bury 1 million tons of CO2 in the ground annually.

Here’s a big budget -– use it wisely. Here’s the regulatory  manual –- don’t violate it. There’s the aquifer –- steer clear of it.

We don’t know if this is a mission impossible because this complex mode of clearing the air has years of engineering and testing ahead of it. To succeed, however, the project’s managers will require a fusion of skills, some of which haven’t come into play before.

Companies nurturing green operations or shrinking their carbon footprints have to cast a wide net for talent, scouring adjacent industries and mingling diverse skill sets. In the carbon-capture example, there would be slots for geologists from the oil industry and for experts who can channel gas flows, among other positions.

Green_neon_collar_with_swarovski__2 Clean-tech start-ups in particular are having a bear of a time finding virtuosos who can sing, dance and act. They need top managers who have earned their stripes in an established field but can perform adroitly in an emerging arena while building an organization from seedling to survivor. If you’re an investor sizing up a private company or an IPO in this field, be sure to take a hard look at who’s at the helm.

These leadership gaps are a worrisome issue for the environmental sector across the board. In April, Heidrick & Struggles, a global recruiting firm, found that assembling an army of industry builders ranked as a prime challenge, alongside financing and technology. Practically the entire crowd of executives surveyed called the deficit of technical and managerial talent “very” or “moderately” serious. . . .

Finding the right human resources was the top-of-mind concern," said Mark Livingston, an H&D partner. "Project managers are in great demand, and the engineering companies, the Bechtels and the Fluors, are in the competition."

One certainty is that multitaskers will be prized at all levels of the Earth-friendly economy –- you have to blend blue and yellow to get green. Doors will open to architects and contractors who know how to conserve energy within their edifices. Car mechanics who can fix a hulking Ford Expedition can go places learning to service the Escape hybrid. Bankers and accountants will have to wrap their brains around the economics of carbon trading and the changing math of public subsidies for alt-energy projects.

For scientists, sustainability feeds R&D, and vice versa. General Electric, for one, is hurriedly recruiting specialists in nanotechnology, a futuristic field that redesigns materials at the molecular level. In the years to come, nano-gear may take weight out of windmills and impurities out of water, while improving the efficiency of solar cells. But this kind of know-how can’t be had off the shelf, and GE, the premier multinational player, is going global with its research operations.

The good news is that the greening will be energized by the basic skills many workers already possess. Hybrid thinkers aside, the effort to extend public transit -– taking big bites out of oil consumption and tailpipe spewing –- will rely on engine builders, welders and dispatchers. And you can’t stand up a wind farm without a cadre of machinists, construction workers and truck drivers. Sustainability is largely an industrial, and indeed, agricultural, enterprise and the nation’s achievements in those areas are epic.

"To set up a wind turbine facility, 95% of the skills and occupations are virtually the same as in any other type of manufacturing," said Roger Benzek, president of Management Information Services, a research firm that focuses on energy and the environment. "In Michigan and Ohio, for instance, plenty of people with those skills are looking for work. They may need a two-week course to adapt their skills, but it’s easily doable."

It hasn’t been so easy in California. With its bulging populace, patchy infrastructure and ambitious environmental goals, the state’s needs have created a personnel problem. In large part, it’s demographic -- a wave of retirements is gathering at our utilities, for example, while their power quotas expand. And nowadays, they are committed to investing in renewables too.

At the same time, the fossil fuel industry, swimming in cash and going to ever greater lengths to find resources to exhume, is loath to let go of warm bodies. Every corner of energy is staffing up, so the renewables sector has to get in the trenches and compete.

Peter Darbee, the CEO of Pacific Gas & Electric parent PG&E Corp., in April lamented the strain on human resources at his firm. "We need engineers working on renewable energy projects, we need mechanics, we need call reps at call centers . . . and we need people out in the field."

Looming change in the energy landscape could contribute to a solution for the manpower shortage, though a wrenching one: If the next administration in Washington attaches a price tag to greenhouse gas and imposes other curbs on business, well, let’s just say a few people might be freed up.

In a struggling economy, with the jobless rate rising in California and nationwide, the growth of cleantech and alt-energy will open doors where others have closed. Careers sidetracked by housing and other stricken industries may find renewal in renewables. Green is hard to outsource but suited for export, a parallel economy that promises to refresh working lives as it refreshes the planet.

It might just be America’s best chance for a leadership role in an ever more competitive world.

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