02/27/2012 08:04 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

Education Is Key to an "All-of-the-Above" Energy Policy

President Obama's recent declaration of an "all-of-the-above" energy policy during his State of the Union address received many cheers here at Consumer Energy Alliance. For years, our organization has advocated for a balanced energy policy that embraces a "we need it all" approach; focusing on choosing winners and losers in the energy space does little to advance a reasonable policy that allows for affordable energy now and in the future. Yet, we often fail to include in that "all-of-the-above" mantra the need to better educate and train our students in the fields that are so critical to energy development.

Thanks to American ingenuity and investment, energy can be produced and consumed in exceedingly safe and effective manners. Thanks also to technology, energy use can be conserved with increased efficiency. As the President remarked in his address, "nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy." Technological advancements, however, are not by chance. Significant public and private investment has been dedicated to research and development to make fossil fuels more efficient and more accessible and to develop the renewable energies that will diversify our fuel supply and lessen our dependence on overseas energy. Even more, these advancements depend on the skill of our workforce to transform an idea in a lab to a commercial-scale source of energy.

Take nuclear energy for example. In the span of a decade, atomic energy went from an abstract concept in 1941 that you might use uranium to build a bomb to the first nuclear reactor, the small Experimental Breeder reactor, which started up in December 1951. From point A to point B, brilliant scientists, Albert Einstein included, strong government support, and, of course, an overwhelming desire to end World War II and return the world to peace all influenced the evolution of nuclear energy. Yes, American determination and innovation certainly excelled here, but do we have the capabilities to lead us to the next energy revolution, namely that of energy diversity, self-reliance and sustainability?

My hesitation to respond with an enthusiastic "yes" rests neither on the lack of public and private energy research nor on the lack of resources available to meet our growing energy needs, but on the lack of technicians, engineers and scientists needed to drive American energy production. The United States possesses abundant resources -- from oil and natural gas to biomass and nuclear energy -- to fuel our economy and lessen the dependence on foreign imports. Notwithstanding, across-the-board the energy industry suffers from a deficit of skilled workers who can manufacture wind turbines and solar panels, operate a drill bit on an oil rig, or perform a multitude of other necessary functions.

According to a recent Washington Post article, a report by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute found that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled, even at a time of high unemployment. For an insight on how the energy sector compares, a quick look at the employment listings of some of the leading energy developers in the United States affirms what we already know: The United States does not graduate enough machinists, engineers and scientists to fill many of these vacancies. If this trend continues, the United States will not have the skilled workers necessary to pave the path towards an energy future that focuses more on increased use of alternative and renewable energy.

One of CEA's leading policy priorities has focused on expanding energy education at all levels to ensure a capable workforce for now and in the coming years. Across the country, there are a variety of initiatives that bolster technical and vocational training at community colleges and that increase the number of geoscientists, engineers and mathematicians graduating from our nation's universities. While programs at the post-secondary level have produced wonderful successes, we must better capture a student's interest in energy and the sciences at a much younger age. Surveys confirm that after a student reaches high school, his or her interest in math and science wanes, and by the time these students reach college, fewer and fewer are completing degrees in these fields.

Sparking the imagination of our young students and giving them the tools to succeed in these critical fields is essential. CEA has invested much of our efforts to promoting the sciences to young students through our annual Energy Day festival in Houston, Texas, an official City of Houston event that highlights the importance of energy in our everyday lives and awards scholarships to K-12 grade students for achievements in energy and science. To keep the momentum going year-round, Energy Day partners with several local science and academic competitions to challenge our students inside and outside the classroom. Myriad other private and public projects deserve credit, too, for the programs and partnerships that advance science education and give our young students a chance to succeed in these challenging fields.

Educators and parents have long recognized the need to focus more on math and science. Now, it is time for policymakers, businesses and communities to stand up and play a more active role in training our next generation of energy professionals. As the President underscored in his address, innovation and education are integral to America's economic future. Little did he know how imperative these would also be for our energy future.