Where the hell did all of the electricians go?
That's today's big question, and my guest is leading journalist Emily Pontecorvo.
Until recently, Emily was an energy, environment, and climate reporter at Grist, one of our favorite publications. She's now moved on to the new climate newsroom Heatmap.
Emily has covered the whole enchilada from green hydrogen subsidies to coal ash, scope three emissions, Fashion Week, airports, locusts, frequent flyers, college divestment movements, carbon removal, you name it.
And so when Emily did a deep dive on the worker's subsidies and training schools behind America's electricians or lack thereof, I knew she was the perfect person to help me, and therefore you,understand where we go from here because we need a lot of electricians to electrify everything.
It's complicated, it's systemic, and it's holding us back.
We need to understand what the bottlenecks are when you can't find an electrician, how we can market to future electricians, then educate them, train them, and support them asa new generation of truly essential workers.
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Quinn: [00:00:00]Where did all of the electricians go? That's today's big question, and my guest is leading journalist Emily Pontecorvo. Until recently, Emily was an energy, environment and climate reporter at Grist, one of our favorite publications. She's now moved on to the new climate newsroom Heatmap. Emily has covered the whole enchilada from green hydrogen subsidies to coal ash, scope three emissions, Fashion Week, airports, locusts, frequent flyers, college divestment movements, carbon removal, you name it. And so when Emily did a deep dive on the workers subsidies and training schools behind America's electricians, or lack thereof, I knew she was the perfect person to help me, and therefore you, understand where we go from here because we need a lot of electricians to electrify everything.
And the problem is we're short a lot of them, with the most experienced among them, set to retire[00:01:00]soon. It's complicated. It's systemic, as they say, and it's holding us back. So I need to, and you need to understand what the bottlenecks are when you can't find an electrician. We've all been there. And how we can market to future electricians, to then educate them, to train them, and to support them as a new generation of truly essential workers.
Welcome to Important, Not Important. My name is Quinn Emmett. If you're new here, and this is science for people who give a shit. In these weekly conversations, I take a deep dive with an incredible human working on the front lines of the future to build a radically better today and tomorrow for everyone. Along the way we will discover tips, strategies, stories you can use to get involved to build movements in industries like this, to become more effective for yourself to improve our world around us.
Please let me know your perspective on today's conversation with Emily, and as always, you can send recommendations to me at[00:02:00]email@example.com.
Emily, welcome to the show.
Emily Pontecorvo:Thanks so much for having me
Quinn:You're welcome. You're welcome. Hopefully you won't regret it by the end. Emily, we'd like to start with one question to set the tone for this nonsense, because what we talk about here is important and serious, we should have some fun with it because nobody likes talking about climate change for an hour.
It's very sad. Emily, why are you vital to the survival of the species? And I encourage you to be bold and honest and I've asked 154 guests that, so it's a high bar.
Emily Pontecorvo:Wow. What a question. God. I can't claim to be vital to the survival of the species, but I suppose I'm doing a very small part in a much larger, important task.
I think that climate journalism is just extremely important to making sure that we get things right. I think we're at a point where climate[00:03:00]journalism is no longer about getting the word out about climate change and helping people understand like what's happening to the planet.
And it's more about helping people hold politicians accountable and companies accountable to actually doing something about it and making sure that the path that we choose to address climate change is equitable and actually makes the world a better place and not a worse one, and doesn't perpetuate a lot of the inequities we see today.
So that's really where I see my role as a journalist is to look at what's happening in technology and business and the economy and politics and people across all those different fields are trying to address climate change and trying to understand, what are the risks, what are the benefits, what are the sort of tensions in this big transition that we're in now?
Quinn:I appreciate that perspective. It's interesting. I hadn't really thought about it much. I read an article recently, time is a flat circle, I can't remember anything. I don't remember where it[00:04:00]was or who she was talking to, but you're aware of Dr. Kate Marvel, who was in NASA for a long time, and is, it is not only an incredible atmospheric scientist, but just one of the most eloquent, impactful writers out there.
And she gave us, typically like candid quote conversation where she was just like, it's great. Nobody asks me for questions anymore because we get it, no one's going but what does the science say? It's like look outside, you know?
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. Yeah. I read that too. That's in the new outlet, Heatmap, that just launched.
Quinn:Yeah, that's it. Yeah. Heatmap. Very exciting. Yeah. I thought that was so interesting. It was kinda like my job is done here. The job is not done. But like that version of it, which felt like it was gonna be here for so long is not the case. Now you just sound like a moron if you're ignoring it.
But you're right, it's now it's okay, how are we gonna do this? Because that is, has to be really managed in a proactive, comprehensive, inclusive way, but also with the self-awareness that per this conversation and your work, we were playing with a couple hands behind our back much of the time here, so[00:05:00]I want to give folks some context for our discussion and correct me everywhere I'm wrong, that's story of my life. But per your article and our partners over Rewiring America, we've been running this whole series with them about home electrification. They estimate that I think it's 60 to 70% single family homes in the US are going to need to upgrade, people call it different things, your electrical panel or your fuse box or whatever to accommodate all these things we can electrify and that's a lot and it's expensive. It's more complicated than just simply swapping these things out. That's just the brains of the operation. Before we get into all these different pieces, of the puzzle that we've been talking about a lot here, but per your article, again in California at least, that's one certified electrician for every 478 housing units.
That's the existing ones. And by some estimates, we need to build 4 million new homes in the US so we have an enormous amount of work to. That we get to do, as I would say to my children, not we have to do. We get to do[00:06:00]and we don't have a lot of folks to do it. Am I off base there again? I want to paint the picture for folks before we get into the why's and the how’s.
Emily Pontecorvo:You've gotten to the heart of it. Basically, about a year ago, I started looking into the shortage of trades workers in the country. I feel like it's a little bit cliche, like people have talked about this for years, that oh, people don't go into the trades anymore. We don't have enough trades workers.
And I wanted to dig into that a little bit and figure out like, what does that actually look like on the ground? What does that look like for homeowners who need work done on their homes, for contractors who are trying to hire people to get work done? And then I zoomed in on California because it's this place where a lot of the clean energy work that needs to happen to cut emissions, like electrifying homes and building renewable energy, they’re a decade ahead of everyone else, they've been working on it a lot longer and the hypothesis was that if demand had increased anywhere, it would've been there.
And[00:07:00]specifically in the Bay Area. And yeah, I think, what I found was that it's no matter, everyone that you talk to pretty much agrees that the kind of number of electricians, I was specifically looking at electricians, although I think, the case holds for HVAC installers and plumbers and other types of trades workers.
No matter who you talk to, people are like, I couldn't find an electrician, or I can't hire any workers. And like you said, we were able to dig up some of these data points about how many there are out there for the population that exists. And it's just pretty striking.
Quinn:It's obviously complicated and we're gonna get into that, but it's, it obviously speaks to…we do this funny thing in this country where we build things and then we're just like, that's done. And then we don't fix our pipes or our bridges or airports or anything like that. We saw, just this week they finally I think you'd spent some time in New York City or lived there, but LaGuardia went from, truly like one of the[00:08:00]worst experiences someone could have for flying to, it's really nice. And then this week they're like, yeah, but we're not gonna build a train out there after all this. You can take a $200 cab like everybody else. We look at our workforce the same way, we have had all these folks who either grew up and their parents were in unions or they went to trade school or they worked as apprentices or whatever it might have been in all those places you talked about electricians, plumbers, HVAC, all these different things, carpentry, construction. And then we just kinda left it behind and you look at how many, you look at the top 10 most lucrative college majors, if you can afford to go to college, or if you've been told you can afford to go to college, because you have all of these loans that are available, but then it turns out 89% of people or something like that will never actually pay them back. It's this fascinating like pyramid scheme we've walked ourselves into. We're now like, we have to do all of this work and we are gonna have a very difficult time doing it because, we're very much behind the eight ball on the people front.
It's interesting. I don't know. I don't know why we do it. That's a further sociological, anthropological question I guess, but let's get a[00:09:00]little more practical today. So we did this conversation with gentleman named John Semmelhack, who's a runs an HVAC company in Virginia called the Comfort Squad, and I managed to magically convince him to replace the heat pump in my house.
He's the showman of the whole thing. And then his partner comes and, assesses the whole thing and says this is where we’re gonna do everything when it's time to do the work. And I had this conversation with his partner. I have a difficult time not getting into it with him. I'm, about these things because I want to know how my house works, but also just obviously because I care.
And it was fascinating talking to him because he, makes these interesting points. Yeah, hey listen, it's hard to convince somebody that already isn't already inclined to do so to spend their career under a house. Essentially, he's like that's not one of those things, like it's gotta be a lot of money or it's gotta be a lot of security or this and that to, to convince somebody.
Because that's like a trait you have or a trait you don't, you can like stomach blood and be a doctor or you can't. And that's great. And there's other ways to serve the medical profession, but no one can convince you[00:10:00]like, nah, it's fine. Blood's fine, you're gonna be okay, or teeth or whatever.
And that was interesting to me because again, that's not something like you can totally fix, but it does seem like there's so many people that would appreciate knowing how much money you can make doing this. So the security of the work in the sense that you're probably always gonna have a job with everything we've got to do, but it's more complicated than that.
So let's get practical with it for a moment. Imagine you, Emily, need an electrician and you call, you find a reputable one from a friend or Angie's list, whatever Angie's List calls itself now, whatever it might be. And you call them and they're like, yeah, no, we do that work. That's super great. I will call you in 2024.
Why are they booked till 2024? What's the first reason why?
Emily Pontecorvo:I believe it's called Angie now. Just Angi. GI .
Quinn:I think you're right. I think it's angi, right? No, you're right. You're a hundred percent correct.
Emily Pontecorvo:I feel like you, you just laid out a lot of things that I could respond to, but just to get to your question directly, they're booked till 2024 because[00:11:00]they just don't have enough workers to take on a lot of projects, and there's a lot of demand for electricians from just regular house maintenance to, there's a lot of new construction happening in certainly a lot of communities around the country. And then there's new kind of added demand from electrification projects in some places.
Quinn:So why wouldn't they have enough workers? What are some of the reasons behind that, that you kind of figured out through all your research there because it's easy to hear all this anecdotal I can't find an electrician, I can't find one. What are the really systemic reasons?
Emily Pontecorvo:You alluded to a few of them as you were talking a minute ago, but I think there's like a couple of things going on.
I think there's one that we've really shifted in the US to really valuing four year colleges and pushing all of our students across high schools around the US to apply to a four year school and go get some kind of professional[00:12:00]degree. Whereas like we used to offer vocational education in high schools, kids used to have the option to learn construction skills in high school potentially qualify for some kind of apprenticeship program or pre-apprenticeship program right out of high school. And there used to just be a lot more infrastructure for people to be exposed to these careers and funneled into them. And along with that, there's the kind of cultural or what you brought up about how you have to be willing to get dirty and spend your day in an attic or under a house.
I think that one thing that I heard in my reporting is this idea that people might be lured into like tech jobs because they're flashy and they pay well and there's this sort of like lack of understanding that a job as an electrician can also pay six figures and can, potentially provide a lot more independence than a job working for Facebook or Google or something.
You can make your[00:13:00]own hours, you can own your own business, that sort of thing. So yeah, there's like this lack of information out there about what these careers are like and how much money people can make. And it's unfortunate, I think. I think, another interesting idea that came up in my reporting was the folks who I spoke to who were electricians, one thing that they loved about the job was how hands-on it was and how they're spending all day like, solving problems and working with people. And I feel in this modern world, so many of us kind of lament that we spend so much time alone on our computers. And I think that there really could be this sort of like salve of the spirit to get more people into these careers, but that's more of just my own sort of idea about it.
Quinn:No, but it makes sense. I close my laptop at the end of the day. I'm like, there's no evidence that I did anything today, like show me, as opposed to, there's a house going up in my neighborhood, my kids and I drive by and I'm like,[00:14:00]look at all the different kinds of workers and they're doing this and you over time, and you're like, there you go.
And they're working with each other and they're playing music. It seems great. Talk to me about the state of trade schools. I know, I believe the infrastructure bill and the IRA both have a decent chunk of money for states to spin up more education and training programs. But like you said we have pushed college so much.
Turned out this is not going great for a thousand other reasons. But talk to me about the state of trade schools because from reading your reporting, which was so comprehensive, it was really interesting because I've spent a lot of time over the past couple years trying to understand why we're so short on nurses.
And part of the reason there is, and again it's a succession of bottlenecks, which are basically choices we've made, is it is more lucrative, for example one, but specifically for nursing schools, it's more lucrative to be a nurse than to be a nursing teacher. And so people can't find enough nursing teachers, and so nursing schools don't have staff, yada yada yada.[00:15:00]
So talk to me about, again, if that's applicable there or what else is going on and then we can get to how the new bills might affect that.
Emily Pontecorvo:It's interesting. That was actually my way into this entire story. So Grist, the publication that I work for, we used to have a reporter named Nate Johnson.
He was a climate environmental reporter for a decade or more, and decided a couple of years ago that he wanted to leave journalism to become an electrician because he was called to the stuff that I was just talking about to doing something with his hands and to contributing in a more tangible way to solving climate change.
Nate started taking classes at this community college in Oakland called Laney College to get his electrical certificate. This is the only school in the Bay Area that you can go to take these kind of classes. And the school, about a year and a half into his program, this one teacher that was teaching like six classes at the program[00:16:00]decided she was going to retire and the school just could not find anyone to replace her. And suddenly it became this like thing where the students were like, will we even be able to finish this program? Is this thing gonna collapse? The deans were not making any promises one way or the other.
I spoke to the deans there and they said exactly what you just talked about, which is that, in these kinds of professions that folks can make a lot more working in the field than they can teaching. And an electrician in the field can make six figures and Laney College is offering, 70,000 and their teacher's union contract doesn't really allow them to offer more than that.
And they also, the dean also said, I've reached, I've emailed every electrician in the Bay Area. I feel like I've exhausted all resources. I actually spoke to several electricians who were like, oh yeah, I heard from Laney College. They asked me if I could teach. And another thing she said was like, they're just so busy.
Like they're so booked up. They don't, even if they[00:17:00]wanted to of give back and teach some classes, they just don't have the time and they're not incentivized to do that. There's just so much work out there. That's just one part of it, though. I think the idea that it's hard to find teachers is a big deal, but I think that there's more behind that in terms of how resource strapped these schools are.
That they're at a point where they're asking one teacher to teach six classes.
Quinn:Yeah. That's wild. If I could interrupt there. I feel like half this show is just me doing what my children does, which is just going like why? You mentioned the teachers union. Pro-union, I’m in like three of 'em. Why can't they pay them more?
Why couldn't that school, for example, offer more to overcome someone who's making six figures in the field and is I'm booked out two years. What are the holdups there that might be more endemic to the rest of the country?
Emily Pontecorvo:I don't know if that's endemic to the rest of the country, but it's actually something I don't fully understand. I did speak to the teacher's union about this to just confirm that was the case, that they weren't allowed to offer more, and it's just, in this case, something about how their contract with the teacher's union is[00:18:00]structured, where teachers are in very like set, salary tiers and the school just would not be allowed to negotiate outside of that.
Quinn:Who funds these schools? Are they independent or is it from the state? Like how do they work traditionally?
Emily Pontecorvo:I believe in California, it's state funded. I think there's also federal funding.
Quinn:You mentioned in your reporting that California has a whole new program, right? That they're spending a bunch of money to spend these sort of things up.
Is that correct?
Emily Pontecorvo:This sort of like landscape of workforce development I think is a little bit confusing even for me and I've tried to navigate it, but California has like a workforce development board and there are a lot of programs put out by them, funneled into local organizations, funneled to unions to do various kinds of, like community engagement projects and bringing more people into their fields.
I didn't really get a sense of what California is doing to help community colleges. That wasn't something that I[00:19:00]was able to really get to the bottom of in this story. They're not like doing nothing. I just, I don't have a lot there.
Quinn:Again, not to keep bringing it back to healthcare, but there are these massive deficiencies in both where you go, I mean we all saw and then we got into this conversation of did someone die of Covid or with Covid because while all of Covid was going on, pre vaccines or when they were rolling out and everyone didn't have them.
We had to remind ourselves that our regular healthcare system and the people involved in it in whatever way, whether you're a patient or a doctor, was ongoing. And so you had everyone not getting cancer treatments and things like that. As you alluded to in the beginning, forget all these new homes we have to build and all of this incredible work that the IRAs gonna unleash.
People still need dishwashers fixed. People still need, their homes rewired or renovations or this and that. I don't know. It's interesting. So when you say, it's not that California's doing nothing, it's just that we need exceptional efforts, to go above and beyond to take on everything we need to do.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. That's interesting. So I[00:20:00]think one thing that you mentioned there is that people are already gonna need electricians for just regular home maintenance, right? Yeah, and I think that one solution is to make sure that whenever trades workers or electricians are going into a house for these sort of regular like kind of maintenance type jobs, that they are thinking with electrification in mind, that they're talking to homeowners about making their houses solar ready or electrification ready, and educating homeowners about what's coming down the pipeline in terms of California's regulations and things like that.
And I think this is one area that California is doing a lot on, which is just in order to do, to get to that point, you need to actually educate the contractor workforce. Yeah. A hundred percent. This wasn't the kind of main story of my most recent piece, but I've reported on this a bunch in the past, which is that a lot of the contractor workforce is still stuck in the past.
There's not a lot of, there's still a lot of skepticism out there, I think about like heat[00:21:00]pumps and about the merits of electrification and how to even go about it. And California has this program called the Tech Program where they are enrolling contractors into these educational training programs and teaching 'em about electrification.
Quinn:That might have been what I was thinking of.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah, so it's interesting. It's not actually geared at getting more people into the electrical field. But it is looking at the issue of the people who are in the field and of making sure that they know everything that's going on. All the innovation that's going on and all the kind of subsidies and incentives from the state that are available.
Quinn:And again, if we go back to that first phone call, and I have experienced this myself and know so many people have, you might find an electrician who's more available and that you might be like, I wanna put in a heat pump or a battery or something. And they'll probably at this point statistically be like, you shouldn't do that.
Yeah, you should just do gas. It's more reliable. But also, again, and this is the thing we always come back to with HVAC is, and I imagine[00:22:00]electricity, is, a lot of this is, so many of these things are emergency calls, right? Your power's out or this is broken, or a fuse blew or your furnace went out or whatever, and they go, yeah, I mean if, even if they're like marginally convinced to put in a heat pump, it is not a small amount of work to switch those out. And so they're gonna be like, it's zero degrees out or it's 105 out. If you want air conditioning tomorrow, you need to pick one of these gas furnaces and we can put it in because we've got the, our distributor on call.
And I imagine, if electrifying side is similar, but it does seem like you're saying, the education really matters, but it's two-sided, right? Because we've made a point to put in these articles we're doing with Rewiring America to say to people like, if you have an electrician coming out for literally anything, please ask them to put like a 240 under your stove.
Or please ask them to do this. While you have them, take them through your list of things and hopefully it's the same side on the electrician side. Which is, it can seem like they're trying to upsell you, but that's what we need to do. They[00:23:00]should come, prepare and be like, Hey, by the way, did you know you can do these six things?
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah, definitely. I think there's a lot of focus on how do you sell electrification, not only to the contractor, but to the homeowner. And it's gonna continue to be very challenging, I think even if the contractor workforce was totally on board for the project. These projects are still really expensive.
And this isn't something that I covered in my piece, but I think it's gonna be a big part of the story moving forward, is even with all of these subsidies that we now have it's still gonna be a pretty big sticker shop, I think for a lot of people who wanna get this kind of work done. And I think we're gonna need a lot more programs to help people afford to make these changes or to figure out ways to batch electrify a bunch of homes.
Quinn:Yeah. It's almost, you wonder if a neighborhood or an apartment building or whatever, which, obviously requires involving sometimes an HOA or a landlord or a co-op or whatever it might be, can say Hey, listen, how do we buy you out for six months, to like some electrician firm or HVAC[00:24:00]company and say, we're gonna give you all this work.
But these are the things we want to do. But again, it's hard because electricians are like, I've already got a lot of work. I don't necessarily need that incentive much less to give you a package deal. So two other things that, that stuck out to me that are interesting and one is you mentioned there, it seems like there's gonna be a lot of retirees in the coming years.
Was that right? It seems something like 15, 20% of the workforce. Is that correct?
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. Yeah. So along with not having new people enter the field the contractor workforce is certainly aging out and a good chunk is nearing retirement age.
Quinn:We just need more electricians straight up to do any of these things from wind turbines to solar, to fixing the plug behind your fridge.
But is there an opportunity because some of the longer, more experienced folks who might lean towards the more traditional way of doing things, leaving, is that almost like voters? Is it possible that more new blood, should we be able to educate them and train them up and pay them? Maybe could[00:25:00]turn the tide towards a workforce that is more incentivized and likely to try to do this work?
I don't know. I'm trying to find opportunities here.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah, absolutely. I think that's definitely possible. I think that the challenge again is like actually inspiring people to wanna go into these trades. Yeah, and I do think that even though, a lot of the existing workforce might not be enthusiastic about electrification, they do have just an immense amount of institutional knowledge that is valuable and it's certainly gonna be a loss to have them aging out.
Quinn:Become teachers? I don't know. You can be retired, you don't have to teach six classes. If you can find three friends, it's bring your most popular friend to vote type of thing. Interesting. So I want to talk about that workforce though, as it exists right now.
And again, correct me where I'm wrong because numbers, not my thing. I believe you said 90% of the current workforce is white. Something like only 2%[00:26:00]identify as female. Is that, are those right on either sides of that barbell?
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. Less than 2% are women. That was like the most striking statistic I found on this entire story. I just could not believe that.
Quinn:I figured anecdotally it would be low, but that is really shocking.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. One thing I was trying to explain earlier is I think a lot of the workforce development work, for lack of a better term, that is currently happening, and that will continue to happen, happens at a very like local level. There's kind of community organizations around the country that are built to try to organize training opportunities and inform people about union apprenticeship opportunities and things like that. Some of those organizations that I spoke with, they really see the task of getting more people into the field as one that's entirely about diversity and opportunity for people who have historically not been a part of these trades. So[00:27:00]to them it's really about making sure that as money comes out from the IRA and the infrastructure law that we're making sure that there's equitable sort of access to the jobs created and that people who have historically not known how to get into these fields or not known that they could can do that.
There's a pent up workforce there.
Quinn:Has it always been 90% white? I keep coming back to, it's wild how folks have been. walking around and you'll see these news headlines. It's like low unemployment workforce, this and this, and but at the same time, where are the service jobs.
And you go a ton of boomers retired in the past few years. A ton of boomers died in the past few years from Covid, and we've effectively turned off immigration. And it makes me wonder like how much are we shooting ourselves in the foot? I know we're shooting ourselves in the foot by effectively closing the borders as much as we can, but I wonder how much that could affect improving this workforce if we're able to find some way to spin up these schools and, in these opportunities and find ways to convince people[00:28:00]to do these lucrative jobs? I don't know. I'm just trying to find like where can we find these workers?
Emily Pontecorvo:I think that there are plenty of people in the US who would want these jobs if they knew about them and they knew how to get into them. There's one argument, one person I spoke with who is a very kind of union labor advocate.
Feels very strongly that part of the problem is that the way that we've devalued unions in this country and feels that if there were strong labor standards attached to electrification subsidies, that we would, the unions would experience more demand. They would be able to bring more people into apprenticeship programs because those programs actually don't seem to suffer from the same funding or staffing challenges that community colleges and other kinds of trade schools have. They have such a proven track record of training people and placing them in jobs. But the problem, at least for electrification is that unions aren't really, it's very hard for them to compete in that field. So there's this idea that strengthening[00:29:00]unions and, giving them more power on a local level could create new sort of funnels to get people who historically weren't able to get into unions into those kinds of apprenticeship programs.
Quinn:Yeah. Obviously, unions have just gotten their ass kicked so much in the past 30 plus years on so many fronts, but, so what is the state of the union workforce when it comes to electricians now and labor standards?
Obviously you're saying, we could do so much more to strengthen those and to strengthen the pay around them and all of that. But I guess what is the status? Is it, I don't have any idea to tell you the truth.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah, it's, I think it's really different in different places. So for example, I spoke to the head of the local electricians union in Rhode Island and there they have laws that basically require all rooftop solar installations have to be union labor.
The unions have a total lock on the rooftop solar market in that part of the country, but that's so different state by state. In California it's not like that at all. None of the residential work is[00:30:00]done by union workers pretty much. Unless it's like a big multi-family building.
It's much more sort of independent contractors. And there's different perspectives I think on whether that work should be unionized or not. I think some people think that independent contractors, are notorious for taking advantage of workers, not paying them enough, not giving them health insurance.
And I'm sure that is true, but I'm sure there are also a lot of outliers who do those things.
Quinn:Yeah, there's nuance to it, which is usually the applicable scenario. So after all of this sort of coverage, what do you feel are some of the, either solutions that exist in all of these different versions across 50 states and so many localities and areas like the Bay and not at every level here from the marketing, just to, it's advertising any business.
You make people aware of it, and then you make them actually interested in it, and then you really sell them on it. Are there any successful examples of just making people aware that this is something that they can do and that the work and lifestyle benefits are much better than[00:31:00]they probably imagined because we've done such a poor job.
And then are there any examples again, further down that funnel of okay, educating, okay, training, hiring, et cetera, et cetera. Because again, when I talked to John's partner, he was like, look, yeah, I could train people. I would do that but then I'm gonna pay him to train and they're probably gonna leave and go to another job, and I've spent that money.
I don't know what the answer is. And that's tough. So again, I'm looking for any other solutions that you feel like, or maybe you've dreamed up yourself, through all this that we can start to work on.
Emily Pontecorvo:Just jumping off the example you just gave, I think one thing. Folks that I spoke with from my story mentioned was there is money in the inflation reduction act for state energy offices to come up with their own programs for workforce development and one suggestion was a program where contractors like John would get paid to train people.
It basically is costing him money to take someone on as a trainee and with no guarantee that they're gonna stick around.
Quinn:And you're saying this wouldn't be[00:32:00]money outta his pocket.
Emily Pontecorvo:Exactly. Exactly. So that's one idea. I think there are also, in the bipartisan infrastructure law, there's, most of the money in that legislation is at, has labor standards attached to it, but it's still unclear how that's gonna be implemented.
And there are a lot of ideas out there about how various kind of federal agencies that are gonna be distributing that money can clarify those provisions and make sure that states are taking advantage of them to, build up their workforce. At a national level I don't know.
The only sort of successful model for kind of awareness building that I can think of is Army recruitment. I have this dream that, maybe the US could develop some kind of advertising campaign around becoming an electrician to save the planet. I really think that something like that could be effective if it was executed at the scale of our army recruitment efforts and I think that could certainly happen at the state[00:33:00]level or local level as well. Another thing that I realized in this reporting is that a lot of newer companies, so solar companies and kind of startups that are focused on electrification are making workforce development like part of their mission.
There's BlocPower that focuses on electrification. They have a huge workforce development program in New York City that they've implemented with funding, I think from the city. I spoke to this group called Grid Alternatives. That's a solar installation company and they have a workforce training element.
And so yeah, a lot of the sort of entrepreneurs in this space are taking it on as part of their mission of Hey, there clearly aren't enough people in these fields and we can be part of that solution.
Quinn:It seems like everything here, like it's gotta be the kitchen sink approach, right?
So whether it's like you said BlocPower and folks like that, or independent groups like John's at Comfort Squad or and again, there's a bunch of these companies and we'llkeep putting 'em in the show notes. Sealed is another[00:34:00]one that, it's on the consumer side, but it says, Hey, here's all the things you can do and here's who the contractors you can connect with.
But if they make it part of it, I've been trying to get the two women who started, I think it's called Charger Help. They are basically like, Yeah, half the EV chargers in the us like one, we don't have enough, and two, the ones we do have don't work and everyone's really annoyed about it. So we're gonna train up and employ this huge workforce of people who that's what they do.
Because it's gotta be better. And it's you're gonna have to train 'em. So I'll take every version of it. But yeah, that's my goal is just where is it working? How can we support that and how can we emulate it in more places? Obviously knowing that like it is more complicated than we have to do this because that's cheating, that's not gonna get us anywhere.
Yeah. Interesting. If you were to cover this again in a few years, where do you see the trends going with the retirements? With less than 2% of women with, I guess all this money that's coming in a thousand different ways on the consumer side and some on the training side.
Where do you feel like there's gonna actually be measurable change? Or do you?
Emily Pontecorvo:Oh, you're asking me to predict the future?[00:35:00]Yeah. I don't know. Gosh, I think it's really hard to say, especially in terms of the demographic stuff. I would like to say, yeah, we'll see more women and we'll see more people of color in these jobs.
I think we will, I think like there are enough programs and people out there really focused on that and focused on that this moment, that there's all of this opportunity, there's all of this funding for these things that there hasn't been enough funding for years for energy efficiency.
Electrification, weatherization. There's a lot of people focused on making sure that those opportunities benefit people who have not benefited in the past. And so I, I feel optimistic that we will see like a demographic change in the field. What I feel less certain about is how many homes are we gonna electrify?
How big will we actually build up the field? Will we get more people to go into these kinds of jobs? Will there be some kind of major[00:36:00]backlash because people are either getting bad installations or they're getting sticker shock as people realize how complicated a lot of these, like renovation projects can be.
I think it, yeah, it could, potentially bring some backlash. Yeah, I don't know. There's of a lot of different threads that I'll be following.
Quinn:It's a complicated one. We gotta press a lot of different buttons at once. But it's one thing to say we have to do this. It's great that there's all this money involved.
So there's going to be consumer demand at the same time we don't necessarily need that much consumer demand because they're already so busy. But hopefully that will push more things and maybe there will be more for-profit colleges, which is an entirely different conversation, but maybe there will be more entrepreneurs who are focused exclusively on going well, fuck it.
Let me, how do I find the, either the incentives as they're programmed or and written or the loopholes in some of this legislation. What's the electricity, state electricity offices, you were mentioning before, power something.
Emily Pontecorvo:Oh, I was saying that there's money in the Inflation Reduction Act for[00:37:00]state energy offices.
Quinn: State energy offices. Great. Perfect. Either way, it would be nice to see entrepreneurs go: Can I start a school? Can I overpay some electrician and take him off the workforce for a while, if that's what it takes. And then make that sort of self-reinforcing I don't know. But clearly we need, more out of the box ideas that can then be replicated in more places to really address so many of these bottlenecks. It's like the greatest marketing country in the world. Like how do we not have the Uncle Sam type of thing, or the Nike or whatever it is to attract folks to do this work for whatever reason. You wanna get into it for the money. Great. Don't care. You wanna get into it because you wanna do a green meaningful job.
Great. Have at it. It's like we just need the work done either way.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. And actually one thing I forgot to mention earlier is, I had very casual conversations with some folks who work in education throughout reporting on this that, that weren't, didn't really make it into the story, but I think that we are starting to see at the high school level guidance counselors and people in that field.
[00:38:00]Like coming back to the trades and seeing like that those are good options for their students as well. So I do feel optimistic about that
Quinn:And I understand that’s complicated. I was very lucky to go to college, not come out with a ton of debt. I had an incredible experience. It shaped me, but it is 100% not for everyone, for a thousand different reasons.
Much of that is affordability and whether you can ever pay these things back. Whether student loan cancellations actually happen, like who they might be changing right now, while we're on the phone, I have no idea, that's sort of the Band-Aid. It's complicated, but I understand why.
It's wonderful we're empowering guidance counselors and teachers, and if we can turn shop classes back on, all these different things but I also know seeing, having kids in school who are very privileged and probably gonna be able to get to do what they want, but to say to a parent, Hey, maybe college isn't for your kid.
Maybe they could do this because they're interested in this. Or actually there's more money there because we have now trained a generation of parents to think that's what my kids are supposed to do, because that's the way for them to succeed.[00:39:00]It's a complicated conversation.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah, definitely. I think and I think that's where something like a marketing campaign can come in and really change the perception of these jobs and how valuable they are to society.
Quinn:I had this brief conversation with a great reporter for Bloomberg, Akshat Rothi, I don't know, a year ago or something like that, where we realized like, Hey, this whole, if we need to decarbonize by this amount of time or get to zero it's basically both of our lifetimes.
And you go oh, this is the work of my lifetime. And you wanna give guidance counselors like a flashcard, they can show parents who go look, college can be incredible. Here's how much it's gonna cost and how long it's gonna take to pay off if it pays off. And here's the jobs they could possibly do, depending on how they do and what the most lucrative majors are, all that shit.
And here, what trade school looks like. There is not gonna be a reduction in demand for electricians for the rest of our lives. And here's how much they can make off the bat. And here's the union work that's involved in this and this, and just show people the math. And again, that's not gonna change emotions, but that's a[00:40:00]big argument for a lot of folks who are struggling to pay the bills or parents, again, my generation are straddled with that debt and they're like, now my kid's gonna have that too. You, how can we simplify that and make that as clear as possible with also, of course, the fancy marketing to go along with it.
Emily Pontecorvo:So one of the contractors who I spoke to for my story, who featured in the story, this guy Borin Reyes, he immigrated from Guatemala when he was like a teenager and his dad was a contractor and he started out helping his dad out in the field and ended up just over the summer in high school working for an electrician. And he, it wasn't like he saw it as his life calling or anything, but he quickly saw how much money he could make. And when he graduated from high school, he just thought this is like the fastest way I can become independent from my parents and I can take care of myself. And so for him, that was a huge motivator. And now he owns his own business.
He's really successful. So yeah, I think like getting more stories out there like that and just showing, that this[00:41:00]is a path, this is a very viable path to adulthood.
Quinn:Yeah. Extremely. We need you to do it, like not only is extremely viable to you, but how can we support you and this, and your training and this business, and would you like to become a teacher someday?
Yeah. It's a two-sided market that's very nuanced and has some deficiencies, but man, the demand is there on both sides. What else am I missing? What questions have I missed? Emily? What have we not covered?
Emily Pontecorvo:I feel like we've really covered all of it. I assume that your listeners know what electrification means and why we're doing it and why it's important. And that's I think the background of this whole conversation is this big sort of shift that we're barely even at the beginning of.
Quinn:States haven't even rolled out their rebates for this stuff.
It's very early, but the tide is coming clearly. And one thing I actually got called on, I don't know if this is the conversation for it, that in doing this series with Rewiring America, and we're going back to try to retrofit some of these, is, a lot of folks have been like, this is great, but I'm a renter and you're not doing a good enough job describing the things that[00:42:00]I can technically do.
Like it's not good enough to say, try to convince my landlord because it's not gonna happen. So we're gonna try to really think through that stuff a little more. I think that's a separate conversation because obviously the options are much more limited. But we're always gonna advertise these things better to the consumer side because that's what we do.
But if we can get the other side of that match then you know, again this whole train can move a little faster and that really like when we talk about scale, that is the goal right? To decarbonize. Because we have to as quickly and as comprehensively as we can. And I can't remember what share of emissions are residential.
Obviously we have to do commercial as well, but it's a lot. The answer is a lot and we have to do it, so we gotta figure that out however we can. Listen, Emily, I really appreciate it. I got a couple last questions I ask everybody. If you got two minutes to hang around here, when is the first time in your life, whether it's reporter or doing yearbook or with a group of friends or whatever it might be where you felt you had the power of change or the power to do something meaningful. When was the first time you were like, I moved the[00:43:00]needle on something?
Emily Pontecorvo:So I published a story in 2021 about a homeowner in New York State who was trying to electrify his home. And that story really focused more on the contractor issue that we talked about earlier, where, he called 10 contractors, most of them told him you don't wanna, why would you want a heat pump? Like you should just stick with gas. And it focused on that contractor education side of things in a place like New York, which has a lot of, money going to electrification and kind of state goals around this. And the story really took off.
A lot of people read it. I think a lot of people in New York State read it. And I think I got a lot of feedback from people that had just made the rounds in, in the electrification community and in the policymaker community, and I don't know that it directly, resulted in any specific actions, but I think that it really made a splash in terms of highlighting that problem in and getting the state to do something about it.
Quinn:It's easy for these to be[00:44:00]at best a collection of anecdotal experiences among folks, right? But journalism can do such a, such justice to saying, take a step back and go wait is there more to this? Is it so anecdotal? And then why? And why. And it seems like through that piece and this piece, you've done such a good job of going here's how the machine works or doesn't work for that sense.
And the places where it is working. And we're obviously big fans of solutions journalism. Highlighting, like this is what's working in these places, and can it be replicated, can it not? Here's what's unique and what's not. But that does matter. So that's awesome. And New York is doing a lot, but again it's complicated.
It's not simple anywhere. The northeast alone, it's easy to be like, get a heat pump and they're like, we run on oil . That is not the easiest thing to replace. You think switching out a furnace is hard? Holy cow. What a complicated scenario. And it's easy to look at the West Coast and be like nobody's got anything.
You're starting from scratch. Do you know what it's like to renovate a home and put duct work in from scratch? Good luck. It's unique everywhere, but the impetus and the demand is there. Who is someone[00:45:00]who has positively impacted your work in the past six months?
Emily Pontecorvo:I'll give it to you.
So you mentioned Akshat Rothi a minute ago. He is, I admire his work a lot. He's someone I look up to and have gotten to know a little bit over the years, and I just think he's a fantastic journalist. And I read everything he writes, so that's not just the past six months, but definitely one of my inspirations.
I also, I just started working with a new editor at Grist. His name is Chuck and he's been a great influence.
Quinn:Awesome. Thanks, Chuck. All right, Emily, last one. What is a book you've read this year in all of your free time that has either opened your mind to something you hadn't considered before or actually changed your thinking?
In some way, we got a whole list on bookshop for folks to check out.
Emily Pontecorvo:Well, I read this book that I actually, I wrote about for Grist, so listeners can look it up if they want. It's called, oh, I'm gonna maybe butcher the name, I believe it's called Ending Fossil Fuels: why net zero is not enough.
Okay. It's by this sociologist named Holly Jean Buck. She's someone who has[00:46:00]focused a lot of her research and writing on carbon dioxide removal, I don't know how familiar your listeners might be with that area. If you've covered it before, but it's about, not just stopping emissions, cutting emissions, but also actually finding ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere to, to draw it back down and either sequester it underground or in trees and plants. So she wrote this book about basically the idea of net zero is that we're going to cut emissions to a certain point and then balance out any remaining emissions with carbon removal. And right now the conversation's about getting there, there's a lot of debate about, I don't know if debate is the right word, but there's a question about how much fossil fuel use will we permit in the future? And we hear Biden or Secretary Granholm saying things like, we're gonna have oil and gas for years into the future. And meanwhile we have groups like the International Energy Agency saying[00:47:00]things like, in order to get to net zero we have to, we can't extract any more oil or gas.
Yeah. And yeah, there's this question of like, how much longer are we gonna use fossil fuels? How much natural gas will exist in the future and the book is about grappling with those questions and what it would actually mean to end fossil fuels. And it just it's fascinating and I definitely recommend her writing for anyone interested in these questions.
Quinn:Yeah, it's a provocative question. It's one thing to say no more emissions. It's another to say we gotta remove it all. It's another to take that big step back and go, okay, what does that really mean? To effectively undo the entire machine that has fueled, the past 150 years. And is that possible?
And if so, what will that actually require? Because like you said, when the I E A is like no, you have to stop now. There's no more like we can't do anymore. Those are the questions we have to ask. It's not, and they're hard questions, obviously there's a lot of folks involved on every side, but it's the same thing as, looking at, and I just spent 15 years in Los Angeles.
It's the same thing as, looking at the Colorado River situations like that and going,[00:48:00]Hey, we gotta have a real talk about what it means to live out west because it's, it can't be the version it's been for a while. Not a fun conversation for a lot of folks, but they're the ones we have to have going forward, so I love that.
I will check that out. It'll go on the list. That is fantastic. Emily, you've been amazing and put up with so much today already. Where can our listeners follow online, read your reporting. All that jazz.
Emily Pontecorvo:I actually have a bit of news, so I, you can follow me on Emily Pont on Twitter. You can look up my writing on Grist and this is actually my last week at Grist. I probably should have mentioned this at the top of this today.
Quinn:No, it's great. That's fine. That's why I haven't recorded the intro yet. No, let's do it.
Emily Pontecorvo:But I'm actually leaving to join Heatmap.
Quinn:Oh, no shit. Nice. Awesome. Oh man, there's some killers. I mean look, love Grist. The best. But Heatmap looks awesome.
Just some incredible folks over there.
Emily Pontecorvo:Yeah. I'm, it's, it was a hard decision. I'm very sad to be leaving Grist. But I'm very excited. Heatmap is gonna be awesome. Your listeners should definitely[00:49:00]subscribe. I'll be starting there in a couple weeks.
Quinn:Nice. Congratulations. That's exactly, look, it's, have these young children, they're always like, everyone's what? I had to go do their career day and I just tried not to drop F bombs the entire time, which was. A balance. They ask these kids, what do you wanna be when you grow up? What do you wanna do? And the thing I try to help them understand is you're not gonna do one thing and you're not gonna work at one place.
This isn't the 1900s, you're not gonna be on the same factory line forever. Like Grist is incredible. And some people stay there for life. And yet, journalism is filled with incredible folks who got their start there or were there at some point and learned some way. And obviously we just need more of these things.
So Heatmap is not like some competitor. It's like we do, we just need more and we need more people trying to do in a bunch of different ways. Whatever moves the needle on this stuff. I feel like that's the totally ethos of this conversation. Congratulations. Yes. That's really exciting.
And we'll put the link to Heatmap in there. And that's it. I really appreciate it. Thank you for your time and all your exhaustive reporting on all this stuff. It's helpful.
Emily Pontecorvo:Thanks so much, Quinn. Thanks for your interest in the story and this was really fun.[00:50:00]
Quinn:And that's it. Important, Not Important is hosted by me, Quinn Emmett.
It is produced by Willow Beck, edited by Anthony Luciani, and the music is by Tim Blaine. You can read our critically acclaimed newsletter and can get notified about new pods @importantnotimportant.com, where we've also got fantastic t-shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs, stickers and more. I'm on Twitter if it's still around at Quinn Emmett or you can find us at important not imp.
We are also on LinkedIn. You can search my name or the company there. You can always send me feedback questions, guest suggestions, anything like that on Twitter or at questions important not important.com. That’s it. Thanks for giving a shit.
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