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Offshore wind is set to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. For whom?

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Sarah Mizes-Tan
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As Massachusetts’ first offshore windfarm moves into the construction phase, the new industry is set to generate billions of dollars and provide thousands of jobs. But some worry the spoils of the new industry won’t be spread equitably.

This is part two of a report on jobs in the coming offshore wind industry. Part one is here.

Last Friday at a residential construction site in Mattapan, Abraham Gonzalez directed his crew of carpenters, electricians and plumbers. Gonzalez owns One Way Development and sits on the board of the Massachusetts Minority Contractors Association. More than 90% of his workers are people of color.

They’re currently building a typical residential development. But Gonzalez says the team has some unique projects under its belt.

“Four or five years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard said, ‘Go put a lighthouse in the middle of the Boston Harbor,’” said Gonzalez. “I did not know how to do that, but I knew how to read plans. I knew how to make phone calls. I knew how to be resourceful, because I had the functional skills.”

Gonzalez got the job done. He’s since completed more marine construction, including another lighthouse and work at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Construction on and off the Massachusetts coastline is about to be in huge demand. The brand-new offshore wind industry will require the installation of miles of undersea electrical cable and hundreds of massive turbines. Vineyard Wind recently announced $2.3 billion in funding for its first project. More will follow. Gonzalez said his company is ready for a piece of that action.

“My men are trained in that,” he said, noting that his workers retain the requisite longshoreman insurance for waterfront labor. “We know how to work on the water.”

But none of the offshore wind developers or suppliers has reached out to One Way Development about work in the new industry, said Gonzalez.

Some see stories like this as a red flag.

The state's responsibility as the customer

Kerry Bowie is president of the environmental justice initiative Browning the Green Space. He pointed out that other lucrative Massachusetts industries, including biotech, struggled to build a diverse workforce and leadership as those industries matured. And he said now is the time to ensure an equitable distribution of the multi-billion-dollar benefits offshore wind will generate in the next decade.

“Oftentimes you’ll hear there’s a pipeline problem,” said Bowie. “Well, it’s usually not an issue of talent. It’s an issue of opportunity.”

Organizations statewide are working to broaden that opportunity. Building Pathways helps residents from underserved communities access apprenticeships in the building trades. Schools, like Bristol Community College and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, have outreach programs to recruit students of color into their offshore wind training programs. And the state has awarded $1.6 million in grant funding to local groups in “an effort to increase the participation of underrepresented populations in the offshore wind industry.”

But some advocates say the best way to diversify the new industry is to start at the top.

“State policy is far and away the best lever to pull, and that's because these projects are entirely creatures of state,” said Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Port Authority provides an example of diversity done right, according to Henry. When Massport commissioned the 1,000-room Omni Boston Hotel in the Seaport, the agency graded developers’ bids on a 100-point scale. It doled out points for factors like price and feasibility. And fully 25 of those 100 points were allotted based on diversity and inclusion.

“Basically, the message to developers was: You cannot win this—there's no path to winning this bid—unless you have a kickass plan for diversity and inclusion,” said Henry.

Rather than set a minimum quota for women construction workers or minority-owned contractors, Massport essentially set up a contest to see which developer had the best plan. Henry wants to see the same for offshore wind.

“If we create the conditions where developers kind of race to the top on this issue, the sky really could be the limit,” said Henry.

The state and its electric utilities are now reviewing bids for Massachusetts’ third offshore wind farm. Its 100-point scoring system doesn’t include a standalone category for diversity and inclusion—just a 30-point bucket that includes diversity and inclusion, as well as project feasibility and commitments to local investment.

But for the first time, the state required developers to submit workforce and supplier diversity plans with their bids.

A need for accountability

Peter Hurst is president of the Greater New England Minority Supplier Development Council. He said those plans are a start—but developers need to be accountable to them.

“Whatever promise you made to get the winning bid, you should keep it,” Hurst said. “One of the things I've suggested is a liquidated damages provision, so that there would be some financial incentive to keep your promise.”

Hurst also stressed the importance of prioritizing diversity not only in offshore wind overall but also at every level of the industry. “If you really want to have structural change, you have to have diversity among the leadership team in terms of the C-suite and the board of directors,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re always going to be chasing a ghost.”

Hurst said these measures could help ensure the offshore wind industry reflects the diversity of the state. Upwards of $10 billion are set to flow into the new sector in the coming decade. And Hurst said that’s enough to change the economic status quo. “If we really are serious about doing something about the racial wealth gap, this is a key opportunity to do more than talk but to actually make something happen.”