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Missouri's clean-energy industry is growing, but some employers say hiring isn't easy

Solar panels are one upgrade business can make with PACE financing. The Fairview Heights City Council will consider tonight whether to allow the financing program in its city.
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A report from clean energy advocates says that 60 percent of Missouri's clean energy companies had trouble hiring workers in 2017.

Clean-energy companies in Missouri are finding it difficult to hire qualified workers, even as the number of residents in the state working in energy efficiency, electric transportation and renewable energy grows.

A report released this week by business group Environmental Entrepreneurs and environmental think tank Clean Energy Trust said the low unemployment rate could be one factor, as a shortage of job seekers is affecting many industries. It also pointed to federal policies, such as the Trump administration’s decision to impose a tariff on imported solar panels, as another potential challenge that’s suppressing growth among clean energy companies.

Environmental Entrepreneurs expects the clean energy industry in Midwestern states to keep growing, so there is a need to train more workers, said Micaela Preskill, the organization’s Midwest advocate.

“The industry is expecting to see a 4.5-percent growth rate in the next year,” Preskill said. “In order to fill those positions, training will need to be a huge component.”

Finding skilled workers has always been challenging for companies like Sitton Energy Solutions, a business focused on making buildings more energy efficient. That’s partly due to the training that needs to be done to keep up with newer technologies, said Doug Sitton, president of Sitton Energy Solutions.

“Heating and air-conditioning systems in buildings are becoming more complex and automated,” Sitton said. “A lot of workers in the industry weren’t brought up on [that] technology, so there’s in many cases a technology gap.”

State policies could also do more to encourage people to seek job training to do clean energy work, said James Owen, executive director of renewable energy advocacy group Renew Missouri. For example, Missouri requires utilities to increase their generation of wind and solar power to 15 percent of their portfolios by 2021. But the state needs to make long-term commitments to increase renewable energy generation, Owen added.

“It does create a question of, 'If you’re trained, and you have knowledge of this kind of work, do you see Missouri as a place where you can put down [roots] and have a job there?'” he said.

More than 54,000 Missouri residents have a job in clean energy, the report shows. Employers are expected to add more than 1,000 jobs next year.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.