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WI utilities make union jobs a priority for green projects

Two workers on construction site at solar farm lifting solar panel to install on metal tube structure
Dennis Swanson Studio101West/Dennis M. Swanson - stock.adobe.com

With the help of federal aid, Wisconsin is catching up to neighboring states in accelerating clean energy construction projects and the Badger State is taking things a step further by giving union workers greater access to these job opportunities.

Four major utilities operating in Wisconsin recently announced a pledge to hire union workers for clean energy development tied to federal incentives under the Inflation Reduction Act.

Kent Miller, president and business manager of the Wisconsin Laborers' District Council, said it paves the way for a smoother transition to more wind, solar and similar projects.

"With the commitment from the utilities to make sure that the wages and benefits are the same standard as legacy energy, it allows workers to focus on updating their skill sets to meet the needs of the projects, and not worry about, 'Are there concessions in wages and benefits?'" Miller explained.

In earlier phases of renewable energy construction, Miller noted some project leaders focused on bringing in out-of-state, nonunion contractors. As Wisconsin labor organizations now have a seat at the table, Miller stressed the next challenge is getting more advance notice before a project breaks ground, so they ramp up recruiting well ahead of time.

For example, Miller pointed out a utility-scale solar development requires a lot of labor and they want as many people as possible to know about potential openings. He added it includes apprenticeships.

"Somebody could start their apprenticeship career, complete their apprenticeship and become a journey worker through the duration of a utility-scale solar project," Miller stated.

He pointed to the Paris Solar Farm project in Kenosha County, which at its peak, had nearly 150 laborers. Of the apprentices, 70% were women or people of color.

Analysts said the hiring pledge and associated projects could lead to nearly 19,000 construction jobs with prevailing wages.

Mike Moen is a radio news reporter with nearly two decades of experience in the field. He has covered much of the upper Midwest, including Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and the Dakotas. Many of his stories have aired nationally, including several public radio programs.
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