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Bridging the Green Skills Gap: An IDEA Discussion with District Energy Executive Juan Ontiveros

By District Energy posted 04-05-2024 09:56

IDEA CampusEnergy2024, held in San Francisco this past February, shed light on the innovative solutions being paired with district energy to advance decarbonization efforts. These solutions also often integrate renewable energy technologies both on college and university campuses and in commercial settings. However, the need for workforce development and growth of the labor force in the energy industry may be one of the biggest obstacles to the continued growth and expansion of these solutions.  
Between 2022 and 2023, the workforce only showed a 12.3% increase in green talent, while there was a 22.4% increase in jobs requiring green skills. A clear shortfall.  Additionally, with campuses and industry adopting lower carbon technologies, the complexity of energy systems is intensifying, which also requires specialized knowledge and skills. This may result in increased difficulties for new employees as well as those who are farther along in their careers, as workers must quickly adapt to the evolving demands of the job. 
The data above reinforces what many in the industry are seeing first-hand. The global workforce lacks the sustainability professionals and clean tech experts required to meet the surging demand for decarbonization amid the climate transition. However, addressing this skills and talent gap can be accomplished with the right strategies in place. For insight on how campuses are addressing the workforce challenge, we spoke with Juan Ontiveros, a former Associate Vice President for Utilities, Energy and Facilities Management at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) and IDEA Board Member Emeritus, about the approach and practices he developed during his career to hire and train new district energy professionals. 
UT Austin’s District Energy Systems
With more than 50,000 students enrolled, UT Austin serves a student body the size of a small city. It meets the energy needs for those students by producing 100% of its electric power and thermal energy by itself since 1929. All 200 buildings on campus (17 million square feet) are connected through a combined heat and power (CHP) district energy system located centrally on campus. 
UT Austin’s Training Program
To proactively address green workforce issues the University has invested more than half a million dollars in its training program over the past decade. Recognizing the need to invest in people alongside equipment, UT Austin has developed its own certified and test-based training program to ensure that new hires understand the nuances of their specific systems and operations. 
“One of the challenges campuses face is to find the people with the right talents to meet carbon-neutral goals. Every energy system is unique and takes specialized electricians, plumbers, technicians, operators and other experts to keep them efficiently running. The training program helps bridge the talent gap and also support their growth,” said Ontiveros. The program is a success, as it has been attracting and retaining individuals like Ryan Thompson, Director of Utilities - Operations, Utilities and Energy Management at the UC Austin, and Rossen Tzartzev, Associate Director of Electrical Distribution and Elevator Services for UT Austin, who both started in the training program and now hold significant leadership positions at the university’s utility system. 
To meet various needs and bring new talent into the industry, UT Austin also works closely with community colleges and supports individuals who have been laid off or are looking to make a career change.  Training programs are critical in addressing workforce development issues. It’s a fact that’s now being recognized at the federal level as well. In February 2024, the U.S. Department of Energy announced a new $24 million funding opportunity for workforce training programs with a focus on training in clean energy jobs that do not require a four-degree.
Collaborating with Students
In addition to the training program, UT Austin also constantly collaborates with engineering students from the University’s electrical and mechanical engineering departments. These partnerships often involve the students undertaking projects such as analyzing the potential benefits of adding major equipment to the system. The students' fresh perspectives often help lead to the implementation of innovative solutions, providing UT Austin with valuable insight and giving the students valuable real-world experience. 
“Our job is to inspire students and spur new ideas to solve challenging problems like climate change,” said Ontiveros. “Through this collaboration, students gain hands-on experience, provide new perspectives and deepen their understanding of the energy industry, which will increase universities’ chances to bring in new talent.”
Useful Training Sources 
If you're a student or recently joined the district energy industry, check out IDEA’s Young Professionals Group. This group provides networking opportunities for the younger generation of district energy professionals with less than 5 years of experience to share knowledge, get involved, and build connections, and this group will be meeting again at IDEA2024 in June. In the near future, IDEA will unveil a new online learning platform with a wealth of educational content - stay connected for updates.  
Juan Ontiveros is now leading the Ontiveros Energy Consulting firm and helps companies build high performing teams in utility maintenance and operation, instrumentation, networking, controls and optimization that excel in the combined heat and power as well as the district energy environment. You can reach Juan Ontiveros at