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Climate and Environment

Mandates On Zero Emission Vehicles Are Changing California's Job Market. What You Should Know

People gather around a large, white electric semi-truck that has it's hood open.
Students learn about the electric-powered Volvo semi-truck.
(Erin Stone
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Last month, California passed a first-in-the-world rule that, among other things, requires all new medium- and heavy-duty trucks sold in the state to be electric or hydrogen-fueled by 2036, building on a previous truck rule passed in 2020.

The Electric Car And Truck Transition Is Driving The Next Generation of Auto Workers

The state has also banned the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035.

The momentum is only gaining for the biggest transition in transportation since the rise of gas-powered vehicles, with big implications for improving local air pollution and slashing planet-heating emissions.

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The tailpipes of passenger cars and big-rig trucks are California’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and unhealthy smog, according to the California Air Resources Board, which regulates air pollution in the state.

What are “zero emissions” vehicles?
  • "Zero emissions vehicles," or ZEVs, have no tailpipe pollution. Currently, about 40% of California’s smog-forming pollutants and planet-heating greenhouse gasses come from the tailpipes of passenger vehicles and heavy-duty trucks. 

  • At this point in time, a zero-emissions vehicle is a vehicle powered by an electric battery or hydrogen fuel cell, instead of an internal combustion engine. 

  • The truth is no vehicle has zero emissions. While ZEVs will help to dramatically lower pollution, they still have emissions from tires on the road. How they’re manufactured can also affect their emissions footprint, though research has shown that despite a more carbon-intensive manufacturing process, their climate impact is far lower overall than traditional gas and diesel vehicles.

If all goes to plan, the new trucking fleet rules are expected to:

  • Get 100% of port drayage trucks, last-mile delivery, and government fleets to be tailpipe-emissions-free by 2035.
  • 100% zero-emission refuse trucks and local buses by 2040.
  • Nearly half of all semi-trucks on California highways are expected to be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035, about 70% by 2042, with the final goal being 100% by 2045.

Not only are these policies expected to help slash emissions, the electrification transition is also expected to generate tens of thousands of jobs, with projections for 2050 about double the potential job creation as traditional diesel, according to a 2019 study.

That growth is already happening, particularly on the passenger vehicle side. In 2021, for example, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that electric vehicle jobs jumped 26.2% from 2020.

SoCal community colleges are training a new workforce

Last week, students from Rio Hondo College and San Bernardino Valley College gathered around a huge Volvo all-electric semi-truck, peering into the engine. They were getting a tour of all the latest zero-emission truck tech at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo at the Anaheim Convention Center.

Usually held in Long Beach, the expo was nearly twice as large as usual this year, requiring it to be held at the larger venue — a signal that the medium- and heavy-duty truck industry is gaining momentum in the transition away from fossil fuels.

A diverse group of people stand in a well-lit convention center with lanyards around their necks.
Rio Hondo and San Bernardino Valley College students listen to a presentation by truck manufacturer Daimler.
(Erin Stone
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The students ranged from newly graduated high schoolers to seasoned auto and truck industry workers. Their programs are now part of the Joint Electric Truck Scaling Initiative, or JETSI, a pilot project that aims to demonstrate how fleets can rapidly transition from diesel. JETSI is also partnering with Rio Hondo and San Bernardino Valley colleges to train the next generation of technicians and drivers.

John Frala has been the Advanced Transportation Technology Alternative Fuels Instructor at Rio Hondo for 25 years. He said the program is currently graduating the most technicians for Tesla vehicles than anywhere in the nation, having graduated 300 technicians in just the last eight years. Those numbers are only expanding to more companies as the electrification of medium- and heavy-duty trucks ramps up.

Millions of vehicles already need specialized service

California already has more than a million electric or hybrid cars on the road. Then there’s the 1.8 million big rig trucks operating every day in the state, which mostly run on diesel. Through new policies, the state projects about half of those trucks will be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035.

Local community college programs
  • Learn more about Rio Hondo College’s programs here.

  • Learn more about San Bernardino Valley College’s programs here.

Frala said the transition from internal combustion engines to electric batteries is opening up the field to more job diversity, as well as worker diversity — for example, more women in a long male-dominated field.

“It's actually opened up a lot of the doors that weren't there before,” Frala said. “It’s not greasy, grimy. It's more of a thought process. They learn all of the aspects of the vehicle, not just to fix or change a motor.”

“We're not just doing transportation from point A to point B, we're also looking at environmental concerns,” Frala added.

The students learn everything from the basics of how electric batteries work, to options for repurposing those batteries, to the physics, mathematics, and mechanical engineering skills needed to work in the field. The course also covers vehicle computer and data systems and charging infrastructure, as well as the latest trends in the industry and government policy.

A group of people stand in a well-lit convention center.
Rio Hondo and San Bernardino Valley College students listen to a presentation by truck manufacturer Daimler.
(Erin Stone

More comprehensive training — from mechanics to climate impacts

Instead of just focusing on the vehicle at hand, students learn the whole process, from manufacturing to disassembly, all while getting an understanding of environmental and climate impacts.

Frala said students end the course well-equipped for jobs across the industry: from manufacturing, to driving, to maintenance, to infrastructure, to customer service, to environmental sustainability.

“So now the student is well-rounded,” Frala said. “He’s not just a guy who changes a part because.”

San Bernardino Valley College also offers courses to prepare students to work on electric and hybrid cars, as well as heavy-duty zero-emissions trucks. They’re looking to incorporate training for charging infrastructure as well, said Alexander Cruz, who teaches light-duty and hybrid vehicle courses.

A green Mack medium-duty truck on a carpeted showfloor in a well-lit convention center.
A truck on display on the show floor of the Anaheim Convention Center during the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo on May 4, 2023.
(Erin Stone

“We're kind of bridging the gap between electrician and auto technician,” Cruz said. “These are our future technicians. These are the people that are making everything work. There are a lot of emerging jobs in the electrification of all of our transportation systems and there's a huge skills gap.”

The colleges are considered pioneers in Southern California to fill that gap, he said. They’re also looking to tap into high school talent: Rio Hondo has now partnered with six local high schools to help students build needed skills even earlier.

“The jobs are going to be there,” Cruz said. “They're gonna have a lot of room to move up, and that's what we want for our students. We don't want our students to end up with a dead-end job. We want them to have a lifelong career where they can provide for their families.”

A red and yellow truck cab with a curved, aerodynamic shape and a yellow Shell sign on the side.
The ACT Expo showcased "zero-emission" trucks, as well as more fuel-efficient designs for traditional trucks, like this one.
(Erin Stone

A chance to take home a paycheck and help the environment

Charles Fong was born in Long Beach, but has lived mostly in the city of San Bernardino, where he works as an automotive technician and is about to finish his degree at San Bernardino Valley College in electric power technology.

A man with light brown skin wearing a gray hoodie and black shirt stands for a photo on the carpeted showfloor of a well-lit convention center room.
Charles Fong, an auto technician, is finishing his degree in electric power technology at San Bernardino Valley College.
(Erin Stone

He’s aiming to get a job on the infrastructure side of things.

“I've always had a knack for just techy things. I love fixing things,” Fong said. “I felt this was the future and this is a very secure career.”

But having grown up in the Inland Empire with some of the worst air pollution in the country, it’s also personal for him. Fong lives next to the freeway and daily experiences the impact of air pollution.

“The skies are gray, it's hazy,” Fong said. “I actually had a friend from Australia come over and he said, ‘Why does it look like a post-apocalyptic movie?’ I thought it was normal. I was normalized to it until I visited him, and I've never seen such blue, vivid skies before.”

That’s why, for Fong, gaining skills in electric transportation infrastructure isn’t only about the paycheck.

“It’s a big concern for me — our future, our well being, our children's well being,” Fong said. “I don't want to leave this world in a worse place than when I came into it. I feel like I have a greater purpose. Before it was just working on cars or just doing the daily grind and not really having any purpose behind it other than a paycheck. But, like, me having a part to potentially change the world feels great.”

Why women see new opportunities as industry changes

Beverly Madden first started working on cars and trucks with her foster dad growing up in Massachusetts.

A woman with light skin tone and short blonde hair wears a blue shirt and smiles at the camera while sitting at a table in a conference room.
Beverly Madden is looking to start her own business fixing gas and electric cars after completing her degree at Rio Hondo College in Whittier.
(Erin Stone

“Tinkering on the home cars and the RV to keep it running ‘cause, you know, you don't always have money for the mechanics,” Madden said. “We may have not done everything by the books that I've learned now, but it started my interest in wanting to learn vehicles and engines.”

After completing her military service, she moved out west to Whittier, where she heard about Rio Hondo’s array of auto degrees. After completing her degree at Rio Hondo (she’ll complete her Alternative Fuels associate’s in a couple weeks, then start her four-year auto degree), she plans to start her own mobile auto repair business.

She’ll focus primarily on traditional gas-fueled cars, but she’s taking the alternative fuels course because she wants to also have the skills needed to work on electric vehicles — as well as keep herself safe since electric vehicles run on extremely high voltage systems.

“This is where the nation is moving and I kind of have to jump along that train if I want to stay up to date and be able to continue working on newer vehicles and be safe,” Madden said.

Madden said she’s particularly excited that Rio Hondo is launching an all-women electric vehicle technician program this summer. Having served in the Marines and worked in the auto industry for years, Madden is no stranger to the extra challenges of being a woman in a man’s world.

“Definitely being a female in this field is already a challenge in itself,” Madden said. “I'm used to it. I have the tough skin to get through, but I have my knowledge behind me, which makes it better because then you're not spitting blanks. When you walk up to a car that needs repair and you’ve got males around it and you start saying tech terminology that makes sense, then they're going to value your opinion.”

She hopes the course will lead to more networking and community among women already in or entering the field.

Already, Rio Hondo’s alternative fuels program is seeing female enrollment steadily grow, said Frala, increasing from 4% to 12% female enrollment in the last four years.

Seasoned workers shifting career paths

Jorge Sanchez of Corona has been a mechanic since he was 11 years old. Now he’s studying solar and renewable energy at San Bernardino Valley College.

A man with light brown skin smiles directly at the camera. He wears a blue shirt that reads "SB Valley College" in blue letters.
Jorge Sanchez has worked as an auto mechanic since he was 11 and is now looking to shift into solar energy and electric work.
(Tom Glynn

“All the change right now is for electric, so basically that's why I'm doing it,” Sanchez said. “I'm trying to get into as much electric as I can.”

He’s concerned about the costs of electric trucks, but “the good thing is for the future,” Sanchez said. “There's still gonna be emissions, but it's going to get reduced substantially.”

And what’s more, after some 30 years in the business, he’s pretty sure he’s finally found his calling — he loves the math involved with working on electric vehicles, which require a deeper understanding of data and computer systems.

“I really didn't know what I wanted to do when I was younger until right now,” Sanchez said with a smile.

Tom Wright is another seasoned industry veteran who has worked for nearly 27 years in the diesel business, starting his career three days after he turned 18 at a Chevrolet dealership. Now 57 and taking the alternative fuels course at Rio Hondo, he’s finding exciting new directions in his career.

A white man with a beard and blue shirt smiles at the camera in a well-lit convention center.
Tom Wright has worked in the diesel business for 27 years and is considering shifting into a training role on the electric side of things.
(Erin Stone

“If I want to stay in California, diesel is a bad word,” Wright said. “But I've kind of been rejuvenated taking some of these classes, looking at what's coming down the road with all the electrification on the automotive side. I'm just ready for something new. ”

He’s considering shifting into a training or teaching role to support the next generation of auto workers.

“I'd like to help guide them to where they don't make some of the dumb mistakes I made, but also help them maximize their ability to make a living,” Wright said. “From a financial standpoint, you can make a lot of money doing this if you make the right decisions and you focus on the task at hand.”

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