Stronger Workforce Development Policies and Labor Standards Help Fossil Fuel Communities in the Energy Transition

As fossil fuel workers grapple with the decline of community-sustaining industries, a new joint report by Resources for the Future and Environmental Defense Fund assesses how workforce development policies and labor standards can protect workers and lay the groundwork for future success.


March 16, 2021

News Type

Press Release

Workforce development policies and labor standards could help displaced fossil fuel workers succeed in a low-carbon economy, a report released today by Resources for the Future (RFF) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) finds.

By reviewing a range of federal and state policies such as those involving job training, career services, income supports, and workplace safety standards, the report shares valuable insights into how federal policymakers can help fossil fuel workers—particularly in the coal industry—secure fair, stable, and safe jobs. As the Biden-Harris administration accelerates efforts to address climate change and invest in clean energy, this new research gives policymakers the tools they need to ensure that this transition is fair and equitable.

“Strong labor policies have a role to play in building a strong economy and supporting workers in transition,” said Wesley Look, a senior research associate at RFF. “The economic devastation wrought by the pandemic compounds existing trends of unemployment in coal country and other communities, and workforce development policies are an important piece of turning the tide towards greater prosperity and equity.”

“Strong federal labor policies are necessary to make America’s shift to a clean economy fair to energy workers,” added Jake Higdon, senior analyst for US climate policy at EDF. “But this is only one part of the picture. We’ll need a comprehensive, cohesive approach to do right by workers and communities affected by the energy transition.”

RFF and EDF’s review of existing policies and their effectiveness resulted in the following key conclusions:

Workforce Development:

  • Strong interagency/government coordination and an accessible, central hub of resources are essential to delivering workforce development services effectively.
  • Creating programs that target specific demographics and are tailored to local circumstances can help identify distinct groups and meet their unique needs.
  • Wrap-around supports for workers like child care and substance abuse therapy may be especially important in creating conditions for success in workforce development programs.
  • Close collaboration with industry groups and employers can help design effective policies relevant to local labor market demands.

Labor Standards

  • Labor standards can create basic protections for workers in transition, including by requiring advance warning before termination and providing bridge benefits like employer-sponsored health care.
  • Labor standards can help bolster unionization, which is connected to a range of positive outcomes for workers and the economy. This includes more equitable compensation, reduced job turnover, and incentives to invest in job training.

To learn more about these findings, read the report, Labor Policies to Enable Fairness for Workers and Communities in Transition, by Wesley Look (RFF), Molly Robertson (RFF), Jake Higdon (EDF), and Daniel Propp (RFF). Read the blog post about the findings here.

RFF and EDF’s Fairness for Workers and Communities series is designed to help policymakers assess strategies to address social and economic challenges associated with a shift to a clean energy economy. Many of these challenges are being brought into focus by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has accelerated job loss in the energy sector, especially in regions already struggling. The final installment in the series will be an overarching synthesis summarizing the findings of previous reports.

Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Its mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. RFF is committed to being the most widely trusted source of research insights and policy solutions leading to a healthy environment and a thriving economy.

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed here are those of the individual authors and may differ from those of other RFF experts, its officers, or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals.

For more information, please see our media resources page or contact Media Relations and Communications Specialist Annie McDarris.

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