Gen Z Will Thrive on Clean-Energy Jobs. The Climate Corps Promises to Start Their Careers

The growth of renewable energy and climate tech is helping Gen Z find stability in this economy. This Earth Day, President Biden's new climate program offering training and jobs has opened for applications.

Two electrician apprentices work on a programmable logic controller.

The US will need a lot more electricians to keep up with electrification and renewable energy. Gen Z is stepping up.

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Want to earn money by fighting the climate crisis? Your time has come. This Earth Day, the Biden administration opened up hundreds of opportunities for young people to get paid to work on climate solutions across the US.

The American Climate Corps is a program announced by President Joe Biden last September, which will eventually see over 20,000 people placed in jobs, internships and fellowships that will set them on the pathway to join the growing clean-energy and climate-resilience workforce. Applications for the first 273 jobs are open now, and some of them have deadlines as early as this week, with the first cohort starting work in June.

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"You will get paid to fight climate change learning how to install those solar panels, fight wildfires, rebuild wetlands, weatherize homes and so much more to protect the environment and build a clean-energy economy," said Biden, speaking at his Earth Day event in Virginia.

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The launch of the Climate Corps can't come a moment too soon, with the US increasingly feeling the effects of the climate crisis in the form of extreme weather and environmental disasters that are affecting people's health, livelihoods and home. A key element of tackling the crisis will be opening up new jobs and career pathways for young people entering the workforce to take on important roles in helping the US transition to clean energy, such as solar and wind. Young people are already critical to powering this transition, and will continue to be so in the coming years.

The Climate Corps is modelled on President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, which ran between 1933 and 1942. It offers opportunities across different sectors including clean energy, food systems, urban areas, community resilience, capacity building and public lands and waters. 

"I truly believe that the young people who join this first American Climate Corps cohort are and will continue to become profoundly influential leaders in the United States," said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, speaking at Biden's Earth Day event. "They will be a part of confronting the climate crisis while building a just economy that works for all of us."

The clean-energy jobs boom

The US could see as many as 5 million new clean-energy jobs created over the next decade. 

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That's according to a report from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. That's especially great news for Gen Z -- the generation currently aged about 12 to 27 -- as they enter the workforce and advance their careers.

The American Climate Corps is about to make it easier than ever to pursue a career in clean energy. The federal initiative aims to provide training and certifications for young people looking to find work that will positively affect the environment.

"This groundbreaking corps represents, yet again, a way to make accessible the economic opportunity and upside that comes with tackling the climate crisis," said White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi. "So for young people of all backgrounds, no matter their qualification, no matter their ZIP code, there will now be pathways and positions that they can fill that help them gain the skills to succeed in the clean-energy economy."

Out of the initial pool of applicants to the Climate Corps, 20,000 young people will be chosen to learn how to leverage their skills to do the work necessary to take steps toward a greener America. With climate change becoming more of a lived reality for everyone, and young adults feeling more motivated than ever to do something about it, careers in climate tech and clean energy could be the perfect fit for Gen Z.

"Young people are really excited about this field," said Andrés Henríquez, director of STEM education and strategy at the Education Development Center.

Here's what to know about how this career field is growing, and how you can find your place in it.

Watch this: On the Job With SolarCorps: Young Adults Bringing Solar to Low-Income Communities

The clean-energy industry is expanding rapidly

Renewable energy is growing fast, thanks in part to federal incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act passed in 2022. More than half of the electricity generation added to the grid in the US was solar power in 2023. It's not all solar: The US Energy Information Administration reported in February that while solar accounted for 58% of planned capacity additions in 2024, another 23% would be battery storage and 13% would be wind. 

That's just in electricity generation. There are also booming industries around electric vehicles and hydrogen production. All of this requires workers.

Those millions of new jobs I mentioned? They're already generating a huge need for qualified Americans to fill all types of roles.

"This is a growing sector. We see that the demand is outstripping the supply side, probably by two to one," Henríquez said. "The demand is great, and the supply of workers is not so great."

That demand exists across a wide range of job types.

Zaidi assured the Climate Corps will provide training for many of them. "Positions will be opened up on a new website, climatecorps.gov, to learn how to become a solar installer," he said. "It will include positions to participate in mangrove restoration, which boosts the resilience of coastal economies. It will include positions to learn how to operate lidar, which helps pinpoint methane leakage, improve local air quality and tackle a super pollutant."

Henríquez notes that many clean-energy jobs -- especially for tradespeople like electricians -- don't require a four-year degree, but still offer generous pay and benefits.

All types of skills are needed in the clean-energy industry, according to Luisa Chew, director of human resources at Modern Hydrogen. "One of the pros of working in a climate, renewable tech company or industry is that the companies are very interdisciplinary," she said.

At Modern Hydrogen, for example, employees include engineers, scientists, welders and fabricators, but also accountants, salespeople and HR specialists like Chew. "I was able to find my niche. There's definitely niches for everyone," she said.

Why the industry could be a great fit for Gen Z 

While some people see a job as nothing more than a paycheck, young employees often want to make a positive impact through their work.

"The perception that the older generation screwed things up" leads many members of Gen Z to want to clean up the mess, said Henríquez, a member of the baby-boom generation. "Young people are very passionate about this," he said.

Chew also notices this in her work hiring employees at Modern Hydrogen. She hires people from all generations but said the Gen Z applicants are some of the most interested in the mission of the company and how their work will make a difference. "That's definitely a very popular topic" in interviews, Chew said.

Even after they are hired, Chew said that Gen Z employees often want updates about the company's impact, which has motivated Modern Hydrogen to double down on communicating that to employees.

At the end of the day, Gen Z's deep passion for climate action is a natural fit for many clean-energy companies. It's actually a win-win: Clean-energy firms want passionate employees, and Gen Zers want to contribute to climate solutions. 

Because so many people join these companies for similar reasons, Chew said it contributes to an inspiring workplace culture of many different people all working toward a larger goal.

How Gen Z can navigate the field successfully

While Gen Z can find a lot of fulfillment in the clean-energy industry, that doesn't mean there aren't challenges to navigating the workplace, like there are in any field.

Chew and Henríquez have some advice for members of Gen Z who are looking to land a job in the field:

  • Get started in the field through (paid) internships. This can help you understand what type of role and company you might enjoy.
  • Check out job boards tailored to the climate industry. Boards like this one are a great place to start figuring out what roles are available.
  • Make sure to research each position and company. "When you're applying for roles, take the time to really understand the company," Chew said. It can make you stand out from the crowd of other qualified candidates.
  • Don't count yourself out. Even if you're not an environmental scientist, you can still find a place in the industry. "We need a whole lot of young people to be really interested in this. They need to be climate curious, they need not be climate experts," Henríquez said.

There's also no rush: This growth in climate jobs is projected to last for many years, which means you'll have many chances to jump on board. "It's an enormous opportunity for lots of young people to enter this field," Henríquez said.

Article updated on April 22, 2024 at 9:23 AM PDT

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Mike De Socio Contributor
Mike De Socio is a CNET contributor who writes about energy, personal finance and climate change. He's also the author of the nonfiction book, "Morally Straight: How the Fight for LGBTQ+ Inclusion Changed the Boy Scouts-And America." His path in journalism has taken him through almost every part of the newsroom, earning awards along the way from the Boston Press Photographers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. As an independent journalist, his work has also been published in Bloomberg, The Guardian, Fortune and beyond.
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Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
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