Energy

R.I. Workforce Plans for Offshore Wind, Anticipating Solid Union-Supported Jobs

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Christian Narvaez in a class at Building Futures, a Providence nonprofit that helps prepare workers for construction jobs. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

This story is part of the Pulitzer Center’s nationwide Connected Coastlines reporting initiative.

The offshore wind industry has a solid foothold on land in Rhode Island, in workplaces thick with concrete, steel, wrenches, and hard hats. The industry’s land bases in the Ocean State also include busy places where people are training to work in the nascent industry.

Wind industry workforce planning and training has a dead-eye aim on four major targets. The first, supported by Biden administration policies and billions of federal dollars, is to simply build lots of offshore wind as a renewable energy source nationwide.

The second target is to use the expertise and resources of construction labor unions to support the industry, which, in turn, helps to bolster the strength and profile of unions.

The third target is effective training, extending from high school students imagining future careers, to existing workers who need specific training to work far out at sea, to people heading into apprenticeship programs and union-supported careers. Unions and their apprenticeships play a big role in the preparations.

A final target, which suffuses all others, is to bring into this workforce workers — Black people, Latinos, Indigenous, women, and low-wealth individuals — who have historically faced job discrimination and the ill effects of living in communities fouled over the decades by pollution from highways, dumps, and dirty industry.

Offshore wind workforce planning and training is happening all over the state: at high schools and colleges; at the Port of Providence and Port of Davisville; at two major boat builders; at the offices of Rhode Island Commerce and the state Department of Labor and Training; and at the Cambridge Innovation Center, where a cluster of top-tier wind industry professionals map out the future.

Unions helping, benefiting

Sixteen percent of Rhode Island’s workforce is composed of union members, compared to 10% nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. (The 16% is met or exceeded by only five other states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington.)

Rhode Island construction crafts unions, under the umbrella of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, are leading and helping with training. Pre-apprenticeship programs are active through operations such as Building Futures and WindWinRI.

“When we have the labor movement onboard, we get things done,” said Mike Roles, policy director for
the nonprofit Climate Jobs Rhode Island.

When unions lead a mission like workforce development, it puts a “working-class lens” on the task, Roles said. “The only way you will see a just transition is where the path is led by working-class people. The way to create family sustaining jobs is to put people at the front.”

Roles said employers, such as the contractors who are doing and will do the hands-on work building the wind facilities, know that using union labor is one way to hold projects to a high standard, with projects done “on budget, on time, done right, done once.”

He noted Ørsted, the developer of the almost-approved Revolution Wind project, signed a National Offshore Wind Agreement, a commitment to employ union labor. “Ørsted has been a good ally with labor,” Roles said.

David Langlais is vice president of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council and business manager of the Local 37 ironworkers. “Any time there is any new market that will employ construction workers we will embrace that,” he said. “Power plants have provided work opportunities. Now, we need to transition to renewables.”

He said the Block Island, South Fork, Vineyard and Revolution wind projects — the first one in operation, the second and third in the works, and the last one awaiting final approval — have used union workers.

“One of the nice things about the building trades is that our apprenticeships programs can adapt and bring in new programs and training,” Langlais said. “As the market [for labor] changes we can train for that.”

Wednesday is for welding

Andrew Cortes, founder and executive director at Building Futures, delights in showing a visitor around the 15,000-square-foot building where, for the past 15 years, the organization has prepared people to be ready to step into construction union apprenticeship programs. The building is a busy industrial area of Providence, a little bit west of the Providence Place mall and near the site of the old American Locomotive Works, where men and machines once hammered and welded pure steel into locomotives.

A few rooms in the high-ceilinged place have tables and blackboards, but the heart is a large room where men and women are sawing pipe, maneuvering valves, and watching a welding demonstration. Through the room runs a long structure that looks like a steel bridge, but with short legs. Each class builds a “bridge” as part of its ironworking segment. At the far end, small rooms of fiberboard, neatly taped, are the product of a carpentry segment.

Joaquin Albuquerque, left, and Bento Fortes at work at Building Futures. (Mary Lhowe/ecoRI News)

Cortes said students attend a five-week pre-apprenticeship course that introduces them to the basic skills of several trades, including carpentry, electrical work, ironwork, and pipefitting.

Building Futures also teaches “soft” skills of the working world, helps students choose a trade, and conducts all the work of securing certifications at the end of the five weeks.

Graduates of the program leave by choosing a line of work and stepping directly into a paying apprenticeship position at a construction union. A person is a member of the union the day he or she steps into its apprenticeship program. Apprenticeships can take three to five years to complete.

Building Futures, in concert with unions and developers, such as Ørsted, specifically hires and trains people who had been disadvantaged because of discrimination or poverty. Cortes said 80% of participants are non-white; 10% are women; 42% have done time in prison.

“If we see something coming in the industry we prepare ahead of time to certify people,” Cortes said. “We have a collective bargaining structure; we train to competency; the training is robust; it can be deployed to meet the needs of a new industry.”

Corte said Ørsted, co-developer of Revolution Wind, has been a first-rate partner, entering community workforce agreements that require that “at least 15% of the work hours must be done by apprentices.”

Climbing ropes, falling off boats

Building Futures trains for entry into the construction industry, and those skills go to many types of construction projects. Two other groups in Rhode Island are training people for skills specific to working on wind turbines or moving from boats to turbines in the open ocean.

Starting this fall, with support from a $500,000 grant from Ørsted, the Lincoln campus of the Community College of Rhode Island will begin safety training specific to working on wind turbines, leading to certification that is required for this work by the Global Wind Organisation (GWO).

The Ørsted money went, in part, to building a 28-foot gantry that stands in for a turbine for training on climbing and use of ropes. A campus swimming pool will be used for classes on water safety and water rescue. Fire awareness and safety is part of the course.

The aim is to keep workers safe, say, in the middle of February in high winds on the Outer Continental Shelf when they, in heavy clothes and carrying equipment, may be climbing on wind turbines.

People will learn different fall arrest systems, said Jennie Johnson, vice president of the division of workforce partnerships at CCRI. “What happens if someone falls into the water wearing equipment? How will they climb into a life raft? What first aid can be done miles offshore on a boat? What is done until rescue helicopters arrive?”

The first cohort of the class at CCRI will include 125 people, including 75 from building trades unions. Classes will extend into the winter. The GWO certification must be renewed every one or two years.

“Right now, people are leaving the state to get this training elsewhere,” Johnson said. Offshore wind “is going to create thousands of jobs in Rhode Island. We see our job as providing training.”

Another wind industry-specific training is happening through WindWinRI, established six years ago and operated by the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce.

WindWinRI is an offshore wind energy career training system for youth and adults, said its director, Kristin Urbach. It includes a high school certification and separate trainings and certifications for adults older than 18 on working at heights with ropes and working on vessels in the maritime industry, such as crew transfer vessels.

WindWinRI is funded by RealJobsRI, part of the state Department of Labor and Training. Last year, the program received $375,000 in congressional direct spending.

The program includes training and certification for high school students, the only such program in the country, according to Urbach. It is offered in five Rhode Island high schools or technical schools.

The third annual high school wind turbine competition was held in April, with students eagerly and busily adjusting and demonstration their turbine models and explaining their work to onlookers.

Measuring the impact

It is difficult to find solid data on the number of bodies and the number of dollars that are being invested in offshore wind in Rhode Island. The planning, permitting, and construction happens in phases over long periods of time. The construction phase is heavy with workers, the operations and maintenance phase less so.

Similarly, workers and dollars are invested in preparations that also serve many more clients and enterprises in addition to offshore wind. Examples are construction at the Port of Providence and the 20-year-long upgrades to Quonset Business Park and the adjacent Port of Davisville, which is expected to serve as a staging place for wind project work.

In addition to port facilities, Ørsted and its partner, Eversource, have partnered with Blount Boats in Warren and Senesco Marine in Quonset Point to build five new crew-transfer vessels.

Predictions of future employment are tricky. The next big wind projects coming closest to Rhode Island and serving its grid, Revolution Wind, has not yet achieved its final federal approval. And the SouthCoast wind facility, which would touch on Rhode Island, is on sort of hiatus as it renegotiates its power-purchase agreement with Massachusetts, where the power will be used.

With all that said, some numbers are:

Asked to estimate the number of Rhode Island jobs working in the wind industry, John Willumsen, an analyst with the state Department of Labor and Training, referred to the North American Industry Classification System, which provides codes to classify businesses based on their primary economic activity. In the business category of Wind Electric Power Generation, Willumsen said that “In Rhode Island, there were four employers classified in this industry employing an average of 56 workers in 2022 and paid an average wage of $161,000. One of the employers accounted for over 80% of this employment.”

In the category of Power and Communication Line and Related Structures Construction, Willumsen said in Rhode Island “there is one registered company that provides turbine overhaul services for gas, steam, and combustion turbines.  The company registered in 2022 and employed an average of 22 workers during the second quarter of 2022 at an average quarterly wage of $22,500. There has been no reported employment since June 2022.” The job category Wind Turbine Service Technicians includes 40 workers in Rhode Island in 2022. The median wage was $22 per hour.

Revolution Wind says it expects to generate 1,200 jobs in Rhode Island and Connecticut during construction. Once the wind project is operational, the facility will sustain dozens of permanent, full-time operations and maintenance positions.

An Ørsted spokesperson said the company’s co-headquarters in Providence is home to about 75 employees.

Ørsted invested $100 million, said a spokesperson, in work at the Port of Providence, partly to build a huge work shed where components have been or will be built for the South Fork and Revolution wind projects. About 130 workers were employed at that facility as of June, according to Erica Hammond of Climate Jobs RI, building and assembling components.

An interstate comparison is Vineyard Wind, now beginning construction of 62 turbines — about the same as proposed for Revolution Wind — off the Massachusetts coast, working out of New Bedford. Its first annual report, entitled Vineyard 1 Impact on Jobs and Economic Output, states that Vineyard Wind has generated more than 4,000 jobs and $678 million in economic output, surpassing initial projections.

The 2022 Rhode Island Clean Energy Industry Report stated that from 2020-2021, overall cleaner energy jobs increased by 3.2% over the previous year. Most of those jobs were in renewables and efficient heating and cooling. But the report stated that “nearly all clean energy technology segments lost jobs during the period of 2019 to 2020, with the exception of the wind industry.”

The 2023 U.S. Energy and Employment Report stated that renewable energy jobs increased in every state and grew 3.9% nationally from 2021 to 2022. Also, technologies with double-digit growth include offshore wind (20%).

As with employment numbers, it is hard to quantify the number of dollars that have or will go into wind energy development in Rhode Island, because grants may go to operations that touch upon offshore wind only partially.

However, Rhode Island, through funds from Ørsted and Eversource, has pledged $4.5 million to OSW workforce development. The Revolution Wind agreement includes a $1.5 million investment into RealJobsRI and a $3 million investment to the University of Rhode Island.

Attention is focused on money sources from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Roles, policy director of Climate Jobs RI, said he has a spreadsheet of all open applications for grants for decarbonization projects and a recent figure for available money was $19 billion.

“The work is here; it is almost on top of us,” said Cortes of Building Futures. The ability to place skilled workers into offshore wind jobs “will be because of the training structure that is in place.”

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  1. As a retired middle school teacher in, (and from,) a blue-collar community, where for ages, it seemed, opportunity just shrank and shrank, this is great news.

    To begin with, because of the bi-partisan federal infrastructure act, the effects of which are gathering steam everywhere you look, especially on state and interstate highways, you see thousands of people at work at good-paying construction jobs in a wide variety of trades . And as the future is electric, as this story highlights, the pool of opportunity in the trades will only grow and grow if we can sustain the political wisdom to keep the ball rolling.

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