Illinois Launches Long-Awaited Job-Training Programs in the Clean Energy and Construction Sectors

Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced $16 million in funds last week toward clean energy workforce development programs and boosting diversity in the industry. 

The announcement builds on Illinois’ passage of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021, which set ambitious plans for phasing out fossil fuels and made Illinois the first state in the Midwest to set such goals.

Two critical promises in the law, also known as CEJA, were the development of job-training programs in the clean energy sector and more access to clean energy for low-income communities and communities of color. The state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity was given the authority to spend as much as $180 million a year on these efforts, job training among them, but not a single new ”equity” job was created, Inside Climate News and the Chicago Sun-Times reported in December. 

The department said it does not have job creation estimates but that they expect the program “will result in thousands of qualified and diverse workers ready to participate in apprenticeships leading to opportunities in the clean energy sector.”

Of the allocated funds, $10 million will go toward the Climate Works Pre-Apprenticeship Program to create centers through which selected job-training providers will recruit, prescreen and train participants free of charge. Participants would also receive a stipend and access support services through the $6 million Barrier Reduction Program, which helps pay for necessities like child care and transportation for trainees. The state expects to enroll between 500 and 700 pre-apprentices during its first year, with the intent to serve 1,000 pre-apprentices each year after that.

“Economic progress in Illinois depends on our diverse workforce, and these investments will break down barriers for more women and people of color to pave the way with good-paying careers that will push our state toward a carbon-free future,” Pritzker said in the announcement. “The strategic investments we make today in our clean energy workforce will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”

The state is seeking training partners to run the programs, helping graduates secure apprenticeships that ultimately get them employed in construction and building trades within the clean energy space. Examples of training partners include community colleges, community-based organizations offering training and career centers. 

“We know that historically marginalized communities are often left out, especially when it comes to governmental funding,” said Melissa Gombar of Elevate, a Chicago nonprofit that supports increased access to clean and affordable heat, power and water. “Usually, in the past, dollars have not reached the hands of folks who needed it the most.” 

The program outlined in CEJA runs through 2045. Partners will each receive a one-year grant to provide these services, with the opportunity to renew. The programs are the first of several opportunities the state is expected to announce in the coming months related to equitable workforce development through CEJA. 

The programs have been long-awaited by contractors and communities in the state. 

“This is something, to be honest, that we needed decades ago,” said Gombar. “Folks need jobs, they need family-supporting wages, and this investment that CEJA is making in the workforce and with contractors is a key way to make that happen. So there’s a lot of desire for things to move faster.”

Gombar said the organization is preparing to launch outreach efforts to inform contractors and employees of the opportunities announced on Friday. They also plan on applying for a pre-apprenticeship grant. 

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Other parts of CEJA, which requires that the state reach 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2050, have been slow to take off. After increased rural resistance to solar and wind farms made the state’s goals more challenging to reach, Illinois enacted a law in February that limits local governments from banning solar and wind projects.

Pritzker has said he is open to ending a moratorium on new nuclear plants, as lawmakers say nuclear energy is key to reaching 100% clean energy. Illinois is already the top nuclear energy-producing state in the country. A bill to lift the ban passed in the Senate and awaits a vote in the House. 

The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity said it had been focusing on community and stakeholder engagement leading up to the launch of the workforce development programs to ensure that they are designed to benefit targeted populations, the department said in an email to Inside Climate News.

Stakeholder recommendations the department collected include that the selected training partners have strong relationships with apprenticeship programs and have clear plans to assist participants in transitioning into those programs. They also asked that leaders of the pre-apprenticeship centers have trust within the community and subject matter expertise, according to a summary of stakeholder engagement

“Folks are wanting to invest in their home; they’re wanting to make sure that their contractors have control and have employees to implement these technologies to fight climate change and take climate action,” said Gombard. “There’s so much demand, and there’s not enough supply.”

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