Partnership with Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology Focuses on Underrepresented Populations

A shape sails past wind turbines in the ocean Image by Getty Images
A team of UMass Lowell faculty led by Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Chris Hansen won a $241,300 state grant to help ensure that underrepresented populations have access to jobs in the state's emerging offshore wind industry.

By Ed Brennen

Five years from now, the offshore wind industry is expected to be well-established in Massachusetts, with giant turbines dotting the Atlantic Ocean and generating thousands of megawatts of clean electricity.

To ensure that underrepresented populations can benefit from future jobs in the emerging clean energy field, a team of UMass Lowell faculty is taking steps now to provide them with access to the required education and training.

UML, in partnership with the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT) in Boston, has received a $241,300 state grant to increase diversity in associate and bachelor's degree training programs for technician and engineering positions in the offshore wind industry.

The funding builds on a $244,457 grant that the Baker-Polito administration awarded UML last summer to analyze the local labor market and develop educational content and credentialing for the offshore wind industry workforce.

Mechanical Engineering Assoc. Prof. Chris Hansen leads the UML team, with support from Mary Usovicz, the department’s industry liaison for renewable energy. She says the latest grant, awarded through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC), will help shape the industry’s professional pipeline.

“We want to have a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce. The big question is: How do you do that? This grant is going to help us figure that out,” she says.

The interdisciplinary team, which is working under the umbrella of the Rist Institute for Sustainability and Energy, also includes Asst. Profs. Siavash Pakdelian (Electrical and Computer Engineering), Richard Gaschnig (Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Studies) and Chi Zhang (Finance), as well as Jessi Duston, developmental coordinator for mechanical engineering.

According to Usovich, the goal of the project is to provide a pathway for students who complete their two-year associate degree in renewable energy technology at BFIT to continue on for a bachelor’s degree in energy engineering at UML.

The project will focus on women, people of color and LGBTQ+ communities.

“If we can get this population of BFIT students to continue on for two more years, it’s really a generational game-changer. Graduating from UML with a degree will make them more financially independent” than with a two-year degree, says Usovich, who hopes to share the project model with the region’s other colleges and universities.

“Unlike other industries that have grown in Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to really shape it so that it’s diverse, inclusive and equitable.” -Industry Liaison Mary Usovicz

BFIT President and CEO Aisha Francis welcomes the partnership with UML.

“Our region and the students we serve deserve 21st century training for the high-demand, clean tech jobs in the wind energy field, and this exciting collaboration is answering that call," Francis says.

The UML-BFIT grant was one of eight awarded through MassCEC totaling $1.6 million to support the development of equitable, accessible offshore wind workforce training programs. Other organizations that received awards are located in Amherst, Fall River, Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, New Bedford and Taunton.

“Massachusetts has led the way on the development of the emerging offshore wind industry, and our administration is focused on ensuring women and minority candidates have access to the critical training programs they need to take advantage of these new job opportunities,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in announcing the grants.

Massachusetts has already selected two 800 megawatt (MW) projects — Vineyard Wind 1 and Mayflower Wind — for offshore wind energy procurements. A third round is currently being solicited for an additional 1,600 MW of energy, with developer bids due in mid-September.

Usovich notes that in the latest request for proposals, developers must include a diversity, equity and inclusion plan in their submissions — something that UML is now well-positioned to help them with.

“We have the resources, the facilities, the faculty and the expertise,” she says, pointing to WindSTAR, the National Science Foundation-funded research center led by Prof. Christopher Niezrecki. “We understand the importance of building an industry here in the Commonwealth.”

With the initial grant in 2020, the team worked with the nonprofit association RENEW Northeast, to survey and interview industry players in offshore wind to determine their hiring needs. They also partnered with the MassHire Greater Lowell Workforce Board to learn more about the demographics of the available labor force. One of MassCEC’s priorities, Hansen notes, is to ensure that previously underserved populations benefit from clean energy projects.

“MassCEC is committed to broadening participation of diverse groups that are underrepresented in the energy and engineering fields — which of course Lowell is well positioned to do because it is a Gateway City,” he says.

According to a 2018 MassCEC report, the nascent offshore wind industry is expected to generate thousands of jobs in Massachusetts over the next decade, both at sea and on land.

“How many times do you get to be in the beginning of a new industry?” Usovich says. “Unlike other industries that have grown in Massachusetts, we have an opportunity to really shape it so that it’s diverse, inclusive and equitable.

“And the best part is UMass Lowell is leading the charge.”