Over the past few decades, the decline of industry has meant lower wages and uncertain employment for a growing number of U.S. workers. Yet communities across the country are being revived by a growing job market in clean energy and energy efficiency. These green-collar jobs offer simultaneous solutions to several of the nation’s most pressing issues: economic wellbeing, environmental sustainability, and peace.
According to a 2009 report by the American Solar Energy Society, American green-collar jobs totaled more than 9 million in 2007, and 37 million can be created by 2030, if policymakers support renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives at the state and federal level. “We must build a 21st-century workforce in America to compete in the new clean energy economy. This means training a new generation of workers to fill a wide range of skilled jobs in the rapidly growing green sector,” says Phil Angelides, Chairman of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition formed in 2001 to push for a clean energy revolution.
Climate change legislation such as the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, introduced in the Senate by John Kerry (DMA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA), promises to expand the clean energy industry by capping carbon emissions and boosting job training programs. Every dollar spent on clean energy creates nearly four times as many jobs as a dollar invested in oil and gas, Kerry pointed out in an op-ed promoting the bill.
Pathways out of Poverty
Because green-collar job training is affordable—usually requiring an associate’s degree at most—and because these jobs typically offer good living wages, they represent a way out of poverty and into the middle class. For example, an experienced journeyman trained to retrofit houses stands to make up to $50 an hour. “If a job improves the environment but doesn’t provide a family-supporting wage or a career ladder to move low-income workers into higher-skilled occupations, it is not a green-collar job,” says Apollo Alliance spokesman Sam Haswell.
The creation of green-collar jobs is having a positive impact on communities plagued by violence and economic despair. “By increasing green jobs training opportunities for young people in low-income areas,” says Haswell, “we can create pathways out of poverty and help end the cycle of violence that afflicts many of America’s poorest communities.”
In Santa Fe, where the high school graduation rate languishes below 50 percent, a group called ¡Youthworks! collaborated with city officials and local businesses to create the Green Collar Jobs Apprenticeship Program in 2008. The program offers youth valuable training, academic skill building, and job counseling, while helping to change their image in the community.
“There’s a lot of racism and discrimination and bad perceptions of young people in Santa Fe,” says Tobe Bott-Lyons, educational coordinator at ¡Youthworks!. “And now you see these tattooed kids that people are generally used to being scared of restoring the river and building a house, and they’re retrofitting homes and installing solar panels.”
Lauren Herrera’s life turned upside-down when her six-yearold son died last year. She started getting into trouble, which culminated in drug-related felony charges that caused her to lose her job as a dental assistant. Scarce jobs and a criminal record made it hard to find work, until ¡Youthworks! gave her an opportunity to turn her life around and play a positive role in her community. Now she weatherizes homes for low-income families with the newly launched Energy RX crew. “They’re ecstatic when they find out it’s free,” she says. “It’s very rewarding.”
Since green-collar jobs offer alternatives to youth whose limited career options may have once pushed them toward military service, some peace organizations view them as a counterweight to the “poverty draft.” The American Friends Service Committee notes on its website that the Pentagon devoted $4 billion to recruitment among low-income and minority youth in 2003. The organization has highlighted green jobs in the career guides it makes available to youth who are considering military service.
As the green economy develops, it is likely to help ease conflicts over resources and climate change-driven social upheaval. “Transitioning to homegrown renewable fuels will reduce our dependence on unstable, war-torn regimes to meet our own growing demand for oil, which will in turn increase U.S. energy security and also help curb climate change,” asserts Haswell.
Few understand this equation more personally than the veterans who have seen first-hand the harmful effects of oil dependency. They are raising their voices through organizations such as Operation Free, a veterans group fighting for climate change legislation and green jobs. Main State Rep. and Operation Free Campaign Coordinator Alex Cornell du Houx says he began thinking about the need for clean energy while deployed with the Marines in Fallujah in 2006. He and other veterans recently toured 22 states telling their stories and highlighting the importance of green energy as a national security issue. In December, Operation Free members joined representatives of 170 countries at the international climate conference in Copenhagen.
Veterans have another reason to take the initiative in developing the green economy: They have suffered disproportionately during the current recession. The jobless rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aged 20–24 reached 15 percent in February, compared with a 13.8 percent jobless rate for non-veterans in the same age group. After finding that their military training has fewer applications in the civilian job search than they had expected, many veterans end up reenlisting. As a result, they often experience the strain of additional combat tours.
Veterans Green Jobs, a part of the Operation Free coalition, trains veterans in home weatherization and helps place them in energy-efficiency jobs in Colorado. One of its programs, called Home Energy Audit Training (HEAT), offers veterans a monthly stipend while they conduct training in the field. “Not only does it get veterans employed,” says Cornell du Houx, “but it gives them skills and training for a job that can’t be exported.”
Participating in the green economy provides veterans with more than a job, however. “All veterans come home with some form of PTSD,” says Cornell du Houx. As they cope with the psychological scars of war and struggle to readapt to civilian life, these jobs also provide a source of healing and a new sense of mission.
Throughout the country, community college programs in alternative energy have been flooded with recently unemployed workers and those simply seeking valuable new skills. In Michigan, which suffers the nation’s highest unemployment rate (12 percent), the transition to a green economy promises to revive communities that have been devastated by job losses in the auto industry. Michigan’s Green Jobs Initiative is one of the programs made possible by the $500 million in federal stimulus funds allocated for green workforce development. The funding allows workers to receive up to $10,000 to enroll in the new training programs.
The alternative energy degree program at Lansing Community College, one of the first of its kind, has seen enrollment grow from 42 students in 2005 to 252 in 2008. Starting in the fall, the college will be offering new certificates in solar, geothermal, wind turbines, and energy efficiency. The college has also partnered with the National Alternative Fuels Training Consortium (NAFTC) to develop an alternative energy curriculum for other colleges and universities nationwide.
At the same time, there’s a return to the apprenticeship model of learning by doing and a growing acknowledgement that valuable education happens outside the classroom.
In Bellingham, Wash., which National Public Radio’s Marketplace recently declared “the epicenter of a new economic model,” the Opportunity Council’s Building Performance Center is teaming up with Bellingham Technical College to provide green workforce development. “We feel like this training has to take place on the job and in the field,” says the center’s director John Davies. “The training has to include hands-on learning along with the learning that takes place in the classroom.”
The center is one of 26 agencies participating in a state-run project that sends trainers to teach home audits and energy retrofits in communities across Washington, including those that are not served by established training programs. Led by experienced peer technicians, these sessions are customized to meet the specific needs of Washington agencies that provide low-income weatherization services.
Sound Alliance, in Pierce County, Wash., matches women, people of color, youth, and members of other traditionally disadvantaged groups with openings in green-collar apprenticeship programs. Like other Industrial Areas Foundation organizations, the alliance empowers people to create change and become grassroots leaders. One leader, Steve Gelb, emphasizes the need to train workers in deep retrofitting, which involves not only simple weatherization, but replacing furnaces and water heaters. “We do that for two reasons; it saves more energy, and it also creates higher-skilled jobs.”
The need for green workforce development has produced unprecedented collaboration among labor and environmental organizations, government agencies, schools, and businesses. Steve Gelb says that this collaboration has turned the historical divide between labor and environmental concerns on its head. “We call it the ‘triple bottom line,’” he says. “We’re reducing carbon, creating jobs, and saving money for people in the homes we’re retrofitting.”