Paul McCartney showed up at my alma mater last month. With the passing of Queen Elizabeth, the cute Beatle is now the UK’s most famous and honored citizen. He’s also a fascinating character, namely (1) an habitual pot smoker (busted five times) who – starting with John/George/Ringo and continuing for decades – alienated a parade of bandmates with overly controlling behavior (no one should ever be subjected to performing Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da for 42 hours); (2) an unparalleled ballad singer-songwriter equally facile with hard rocking numbers where he could use his screaming “Little Richard” voice (Yesterday and I’m Down were recorded the same day); (3) a musician with an overly acute sense of right and wrong – perhaps because he could play everyone else’s instruments better than they could – who often selected mediocre songs for albums over demonstrably better ones; and (4) a melodic genius who tends to produce incredible music when his back is up against the wall, and dross when it isn’t.
In the early 1970s, Paul was driven to demonstrate he could succeed a second time, in part due to public vitriol from being first to announce the breakup of a band his three mates had already left – an historic PR own goal. But he was equally committed to his new wife and family. As a result, he put non-musician Linda in the band (Wings) and toted his young children around on tour.
This rockstar/family man dichotomy proved a conundrum on Paul’s most ambitious tour, Wings Over America: 31 dates across 21 cities in May and June of 1976. As always, Paul brought his family along, and in an attempt to maintain something like a normal family life, rented houses in four cities (Dallas, Chicago, New York, and L.A.). After playing Jet at each show, everyone got on the jet to fly to the closest home. Here’s what happened, according to Tom Doyle’s book Man on the Run:
In flight, inebriated members of the band and entourage would sometimes enter the cockpit and hang out and chat with the laid-back Texan pilots charged with handling the tour plane. On one occasion, trumpeter Steve Howard, holder of a pilot’s license for smaller aircraft, was given a turn at the controls of the jet… Denny Laine, at the time perhaps worryingly reading a book entitled Anyone Can Fly, was also given a go in the pilot’s chair… During another flight, one member of the miles-high party… sent the plane into a dive, throwing everyone around the cabin. It was at this point that a furious McCartney discovered that, for some weeks, drunken members of his group had been taking turns flying the plane, with his wife and children on board… Paul blew his top. From here on in, everyone in the touring party was banned from the cockpit.
Nearly 50 years later, thanks in part to frequent flyers like Paul, climate change has become an existential challenge. The current consensus solution: dramatically reduce emissions by electrifying everything while simultaneously greening the grid i.e., shifting electricity generation from CO2-intensive fuels to CO2-free solar and wind, leveraging battery storage. Across the economy, electrify-everything-excitement has reached rockstar levels. But like Paul, the blue states most excited about it are encountering a skills gap conundrum.
For the average American, electrify everything starts with the car then comes home in the form of an EV charger and rooftop solar with battery storage. These are the transitions envisioned by the Inflation Reduction Act which provides hundreds of billions in incentives. But although electrify everything will mean about 1 billion new electric machines in U.S. homes, it’s not as simple as installing new appliances or devices. 60-70% of homes aren’t wired to support much higher loads. And as upgrading electrical panels and rewiring homes shouldn’t be trifled with, trained and licensed electricians are required.
Thanks to the college-for-all ethos that put electricians on the same level as McDonald’s workers, we’re decades into a decline in the skilled trades. It’s already hard to find an electrician. For one homeowner, most electricians didn’t bother responding to inquiries. Those who did were booked for months and conversations felt as if he were being interviewed to determine whether his house was worth their time: “It felt like trying to get your kid into a nice kindergarten.” In fact, the number of electricians hasn’t kept up with population growth, let alone the need to electrify everything. And according to the National Electrical Contractors Association, nearly 30% of union electricians are close to retirement.
The problem is worst in blue states and it starts with the number of green jobs that can only be done by a licensed electrician. In Massachusetts, every single worker on a roof installing solar panels has to be an electrician. To carry photovoltaic (PV) tiles to the top of the roof, you need to be an electrician. To affix a racking system to the roof, you need to be an electrician. The same is true in Minnesota.
In addition to requiring electricians for jobs far removed from electrical panels and wiring – and that are less desirable anyway because up on a roof – blue states make it harder to produce new electricians. There are two ways to become an electrician: (1) attend community college or trade school programs, then join a contractor as a trainee; or (2) simply get hired as an apprentice. In addition to hundreds of hours of classroom training, both paths require four to five years of work experience in order to take the licensing test. But blue states have the strictest apprenticeship ratios, requiring companies to have two, three of four additional licensed electricians before bringing on a second or third apprentice. California just designated all solar projects greater than 15 kWh (i.e., larger than a small house) public works projects, requiring five licensed electricians for each apprentice. According to Richard Lawrence, Program Director at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, electrician apprenticeship ratios are a major limiting factor in growing rooftop solar.
In contrast, red states like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming allow electricians to supervise between two to four apprentices, exponentially increasing the rate of new electrician production. Florida has taken another approach entirely: cutting the electrician Gordian Knot by recognizing a new occupation – solar installer – and making it apprenticeable in half the time (two years as opposed to four). So rooftop solar companies in Florida no longer need to worry about finding, hiring, or training electricians.
In their excitement to become climate rockstars, blue states have already been providing electrify-everything incentives for years, exacerbating the electrician shortage. It’s a shortage that may be spiraling as community colleges and trade schools in these states are finding it increasingly difficult to afford instructors willing to forego lucrative practice in order to teach. The result is a self-inflicted skills gap increasing the cost of electrifying everything and inhibiting our ability to combat climate change.
In 2021, California attempted to follow Massachusetts’ lead, ruling that battery storage systems for rooftop solar – soon to be ubiquitous because soon every new solar system will have a battery attached – can only be installed by licensed electricians, but backed down following a lawsuit and media attention (revised rules are in the works). Why would America’s keenest greenest state make such a move? According to the L.A. Times, “the idea… was first proposed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Assn., whose member companies hire IBEW workers.” Despite rooftop solar companies already installing 60,000 batteries without a single incident, the union played the safety card. And as the New York Times noted, “the electrical workers union… is playing a central role… Union members… [are] an important constituency for Democrats.”
In Massachusetts, IBEW and its allies have zealously defended strict solar installation rules, policing jobs where any work is being done by non-electricians, even scanning for Craigslist ads seeking help for installing solar panels. Colorado allows licensed electricians to supervise three apprentices, but a union-backed bill last year would have reduced three to one. Contractors fought back and that change was removed before the bill was passed. A similar initiative in Michigan yielded this argument from an IBEW spokesman: “If two or more apprentices can be at a job site for each fully qualified electrician, then there’s the potential for unsupervised installations. That’s a danger not only for the electricians, but the customers who will use the electrical equipment and infrastructure installed in their house or business. The 1-to-1 is a decent and good minimum standard… Construction by its very nature can be a very dangerous industry.”
I’ve benefited from unions for most of my life. My mother – a community college professor – was a union member for nearly forty years. My wife is an uncharacteristically militant member of the Writers Guild of America West, which provides great health coverage for our family. So I know unions fight hard on behalf of their members for fair wages, benefits, and workplace safety. And when it comes to the energy transition, unions have legitimate concerns that can’t wait for Another Day; the shift from oil and gas – sectors with higher rates of unionization – to solar and wind, where unions haven’t had time to organize, is likely to mean loss of union jobs.
But it seems these concerns start and end on the clean energy production/supply side. On the demand side, as we electrify everything, there’s zero risk of losing electrician jobs. I have a ton of respect for the work trade unions do organizing apprenticeship programs, and it’s natural to want to even more union jobs. But Maybe I’m Amazed they also feel the need to restrict the supply of new labor. This Tug of War approach may be good for workers lucky enough to have found their way into the profession, but it’s bad for everyone else.
The irony is that the authors of the Inflation Reduction Act included several provisions promoting apprenticeship, but only on the supply side (wind, large-scale solar, carbon capture and sequestering). Not unlike The Fool on the Hill, no thought was given to the demand-side electrician bottleneck and how lifting state limitations on apprenticeship might be an effective lever for achieving both climate and workforce goals, particularly when uncorking apprenticeship could help diversify one of America’s least diverse professions: 98% of master electricians are men, 89% are white. (One reason California has backed off its batty battery storage idea? Complaints it would harm diverse workers.)
We know it’s possible. Not content to Let It Be, the EU has successfully elevated climate and workforce issues above politics. If you want to install panels in Potsdam, you’ll only need an electrician to connect to the meter and grid. All other steps – roof work, installing panels, pre-wiring – don’t require a licensed electrician onsite. This is how large European installation firms like Enpal have hundreds of teams of installers who install the racking, mount all the panels, and do all the pre-work so that a licensed electrician can show up the next day to check the installation and connect the system to the grid.
Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, electrify everything excitement is about to skyrocket. If the federal government wants a climate return on its unprecedented investment, if it’s serious about Getting Better, it should incentivize states to rationalize skilled trades rules, including increasing apprenticeship ratios. Although as the closest U.S. states to the EU model are deep red Kentucky, North Dakota, and West Virginia, doing so could be a Long and Winding Road. Alternatively, states should establish new licensed occupations that are apprenticeable (and hopefully much faster than four years). California has such a category, but it’s toothless because electricians are still required and it’s not apprenticeable.
Just as Paul needed his family with him, Democrats need to remain close to unions. But it’s not possible to be Here, There and Everywhere. Paul should have recognized that a drug-addled Rock Show might not be the best environment for three little kids. And With a Little Luck, Democrats unwilling to take a Live and Let Die approach to climate change will recognize that they may need to Say Say Say something different to their union friends.