By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes.
At a recent meeting with 80+ diesel bus mechanics represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), I got an earful about the fears these workers have that their jobs will soon be eliminated as cities and states transition to battery-electric buses. Even though all of these workers suffer the dangerous health impacts from working with diesel equipment, they were staunchly opposed to the idea of battery-powered electric buses.
And who can blame them? We’ve seen countless examples of exciting new technology resulting in massive layoffs that hit workers and their families hard. Why should tens of thousands of bus mechanics in the United States cheer on electric buses before knowing whether their livelihoods are at risk?
Here’s the thing: electric buses are coming. That much is certain. Countless cities and states across the country have begun to electrify their fleets and countless more are in the planning stages of the process.
But how electric buses will be deployed en masse is another story, one that’s still unfolding. Will cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles that have committed to transitioning their entire bus fleets to zero-emissions technology simply lay off all of their current mechanics and ask electric bus manufacturers to keep the new equipment in good repair? Or is there another way for the current workers to be retrained and even for the buses to be manufactured in the communities that so desperately need good jobs?
In the convoluted debate about the future for American workers, very few thought leaders have focused on the potential that we — as taxpayers — have to shape the type and quality of jobs that can be created and retained. As I describe in a recent article (co-authored by Jose Garcia from the Ford Foundation), cities and states have the power to ensure that hard-working people get to share in the benefits of technological innovation. And the shift to battery-electric buses is an example of how a smart approach to the transition can be a win-win for manufacturers, communities, and workers.
Last week, Dr. Christy Veeder, the National Director of the non-profit organization — Jobs to Move America — that I lead, outlined a clear, reliable pathway to electric buses that doesn’t leave workers behind. Dr. Veeder takes a comprehensive look at the state of battery-electric bus technology and offers a holistic set of policy solutions that will ensure a large-scale transition to electric buses is a win all around — for workers, the environment, communities, and the economy.
Importantly, the new technology doesn’t have to mean layoffs — it can be an opportunity to retrain and improve the quality of our new technology jobs. Notably, Dr. Veeder’s report uses economic modeling to find that a nationwide transition to electric buses using these policy recommendations is poised to create at least20,000 good manufacturing jobs in the US. When I brought up these possibilities with the ATU bus mechanics I spoke with earlier this year, our conversation went from hesitant to hopeful.
We can’t just expect frontline workers to wait on the sidelines while we move towards new technology, which is why Dr Veeder’s report encourage cities and states to consult with and listen to bus operators, maintenance workers, and unions to determine what technical skills training is necessary.
That brings us to perhaps the most important recommendation of all: Cities and states need to make a serious, lasting commitment to listening to and learning from a broad, inclusive group of key stakeholders. From communities and frontline workers to public utility officials and members of the general public, these stakeholders hold the keys to successful bus electrification. Without them, we simply won’t reap wide benefits from a transition to electric buses.
More and more, state and local governments are getting serious about passing ambitious climate policies. A large-scale transition to electric buses is a logical way to meet these emissions targets and clean our air. Now it’s time to get serious about making that transition work for everyone.