What Would A “Just Transition” Mean for Transportation?

Electrification holds significant promise for decarbonizing transportation, which is currently the biggest sectoral emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States. But alongside the benefits, the ongoing transition to electric technologies faces considerable hurdles for the workforce that produces, operates, and maintains electric vehicles and transit.

The Biden Administration’s recently proposed American Jobs Plan emphasizes both electrifying transportation and investing in domestic jobs, and includes several proposals to address the nexus between those two goals. Specifically, the plan calls for training the EV workforce on operations and maintenance, and using federal procurement rules to invest in clean energy manufacturing. It also calls for investments “in rural communities and communities impacted by the market-based transition to clean energy.”

This week, in response to broader government proposals for decarbonization, labor groups released a statement calling for a “just transition” for transportation workers as the shift to green transportation options continues. Given the ongoing transition within transportation away from fossil fuel-burning engines toward electric and other clean energies, it is worth considering what a just transition may mean for the transportation workforce.

What is a “just transition?”

The term “just transition” dates to the 1990s, with the push by North American trade unions for support programs for workers who lost their jobs due to environmental protection policies. Historically, the term has most widely been thought of in the context of protecting coal extraction workers, as that energy source has been phased out at the same time that reliance on renewable energy has grown.

Among the basic practices of just transitions are to ensure not only the availability of cleaner jobs for those who have lost work, but also training for those new jobs. In addition to the emphasis on job security and readiness, other core tenants of just transition frameworks are ensuring that the jobs created are high quality, that workers have the opportunity to provide input during the transition toward cleaner energy through collective bargaining and advisory processes, and that historically disadvantaged groups have job access.

How the switch to cleaner fuels might affect the transportation workforce

Electric cars have a simpler design, fewer parts, no need for oil changes, and fewer maintenance needs than gasoline-powered cars. While these factors carry benefits in terms of emissions, lifecycle costs, and user friendliness, some are concerned they may mean less demand for jobs in engineering, assembly, and maintenance. This has implications not only for direct EV manufacturing and operations jobs, and aftermarket repair jobs, but also for the larger supply chain that supplies both. In a Senate subcommittee hearing on automated vehicles this week, Ann Wilson of the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association stated that the automotive supplier companies could lose up to 30 percent of their traditional workforce.

Others point to the potential for job gains as a result of electrification. Recent estimates indicate that for every $1 million invested in battery electric buses, 5.7 jobs would be created, with the majority of those jobs in manufacturing. Additional job gains are expected due to the construction of charging stations and bus depots. Likewise for electric vehicles, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has indicated the potential for net growth of up to 109,000 jobs per year for plug-in electric vehicles, though this number depends on other factors like gasoline prices, electric vehicle cost, and fuel economy.

While the vehicles themselves are mechanically simpler, there are other production job opportunities, namely for the batteries that power those vehicles. However, battery production for EVs predominantly occurs abroad at present, with the United States comprising only six percent of the world’s existing or planned lithium-ion battery factories.

Job retraining opportunities may be most relevant in the context of bus operations and maintenance positions. For transit agencies that already have battery electric buses (BEBs) in their fleet, training programs are typically offered for bus drivers. Maintenance is often contracted out to OEMs under warranties, though, and there is widespread concern that transit agency maintenance staff are not receiving necessary training on BEB maintenance. The Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO notes the very low share of bus mechanics trained to use basic BEB diagnostic tools. Further, requirements for BEB operations and maintenance are likely to continue evolving as electric vehicle technologies improve, and maintenance needs may also shift over time.

Policy approaches for a just transition

A number of policy approaches exist to prioritize the creation of high-quality jobs in the transition to electric transportation, though not all are explicitly labeled as just transition policies. These policies are aimed at all phases of electric vehicle proliferation, including procurement, operations and maintenance, and the overall strategy.

Inclusive procurement or “good-jobs” policies like the US Employment Plan can be used to ensure that marginalized communities aren’t left behind in the transition to cleaner transportation options. A number of transit agencies have already incorporated this concept into their procurement policies with incentives for manufacturing companies that train and hire disadvantaged workers.

In a January 2021 report, the Center for Transportation and the Environment and CALSTART-led Transit Vehicle Innovation Deployment Centers program proposed that FTA establish a dedicated program to support zero-emission bus (ZEB) workforce development; consider directing the National Transit Institute to establish a national ZEB workforce certification program; and add new incentives to existing ZEB grant programs aimed at increasing use of established workforce development centers.

Among the policies pushed for in the labor union statement released this week were representation of workers on technology and climate change advisory boards, task forces, and stakeholder committees. Similar approaches centering local representation have been used in other sectors, for example relying on community groups in Peoria County, Illinois to advise on allocation of settlement funds after coal power plants closed in their region.

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