Arizona Clean Energy Workforce Development Program
Beginning as a grassroots organization in 2017, the Arizona Sustainability Alliance (AZSA) has since grown into a nonprofit with more than 100 staff and volunteers. AZSA prioritizes conservation, renewable energy, urban forestry, sustainable food systems, and cities through projects, programs, and partnerships in several Arizona cities.
One such program, the Arizona Clean Energy Workforce Development Program, aims to achieve two essential goals: provide job skills and educational pathways to youth in under-resourced communities and meet the demand for the high-tech clean energy sector.
Meeting the rising demand in the clean energy sector
The Arizona Clean Energy Workforce Development Program seeks to help address issues in both equity and environmental justice in Arizona. “We really wanted to meet the rising demand for jobs in the clean energy sector and give opportunities to students from underserved communities, vulnerable communities, and communities disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of environmental degradation,” said Programs Director Julia Colbert.
Examples of those issues include reduction in the quality of air, water, and soil resources, destruction of ecosystems and habitats, wildlife extinction, and more. Arizona and its residents specifically endure climbing temperatures, chronic water problems, and air pollution due to fires and smog, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
“These sorts of things really impact the Phoenix metro,” Colbert said. “We experience a lot of extreme heat here and a lot of that is due to the growing population and urban sprawl.”
But with these challenges come opportunity. Arizona has more concentrated solar energy potential than any other state, according to a report from the Arizona PIRG Education Fund. In 2020, nearly 60,000 Arizona residents worked a clean energy job with a 7 percent projected increase in available jobs, according to an Advanced Energy Economy report, and Maricopa County leads these statistics in the top five counties for advanced energy jobs.
Giving opportunities to disadvantaged youth
The idea for the program came from Varun Thakkar, at the time a volunteer for AZSA. Now a member of the Advisory Board, Thakkar grew up in the Phoenix metro area and attended a local high school that AZSA now works with. As a student, Thakkar did not feel like he had access to job opportunities in the clean energy sector. The program aims to bring cost-effective vocational training to students in Title 1 school districts, connecting them to community professionals, colleges, and certifications to enhance their job skills and give them greater opportunities in the clean energy sector. Title 1 schools have higher levels of poverty and receive supplemental funding to ensure children receive a fair, equitable, and high-quality education, with the aim of helping to close academic achievement gaps.
Components of the program focus on creating educational pathways for students by connecting them with local professional partners and developing their own professional skills. Microsoft is helping to build those pathways by providing funding toward educational tuition, books, stipends for students who accept unpaid internships, programmatic support, and training.
The program developed a clean energy management micro certificate in partnership with the Maricopa Community College District that will qualify students to hold future technical jobs such as energy or building manager, sustainability performance analyst, building energy professional, or clean energy consultant, among others.
“It’s a pretty big push within the high schools here to get students into higher education as soon as possible since a lot of them just don’t have access to those opportunities,” Colbert said.
The Clean Energy Workforce Development Program highlights a path for Arizona to become a leader in clean energy by investing in vulnerable communities and providing opportunities to qualify more residents for jobs in this sector.