It’s Easy Being Green: A Win-Win Solution

Green-collar job training programs in inner cities help lift low-income residents out of poverty and encourage low-carbon practices.

SOURCE: Flickr/Brooke Anderson

A sign from a rally in Oakland, California for a green jobs corps.

Switching to hybrid cars, purchasing carbon offsets, and buying organic food are all worthy actions, but the often-expensive accessories of green living leave out Americans who simply cannot afford to spend more on basic commodities. Poorer, urban communities that are often excluded from the “green lifestyle” are also the most heavily affected by environmental hazards such as pollution and industrial waste. And they’re more likely to suffer from the long-term declines in higher paying jobs for low-skilled workers.

But there’s one green solution that can both help the environment and get low-income communities into high-quality employment: green-collar jobs.

Green-collar jobs involve environmentally friendly products and services such as construction work retrofitting buildings, installing solar panels, and building green schools. Green collar jobs are concentrated in areas such as construction and manufacturing that provide family-supporting wages, skill development, and career ladders. And they are often localized, which makes them harder to move off shore and provides a greater economic ripple effect in local communities.

Green jobs are growing, and are currently the fifth largest sector in the United States. What’s more, a recent research report showed these jobs pay an average of almost $16 an hour, and the majority of them offer benefits. And many programs offer employment to people with traditional barriers to employment, such as past convictions or the lack of a high school diploma.

In 2007, Washington, D.C. launched a green jobs program with the support of the Center for American Progress. The program established a Green-Collar Jobs Advisory Council that will help convene District agencies to develop the capacity of local businesses and the local workforce to capitalize on opportunities in green building and energy efficiency, mass transit solutions, renewable energy, and storm water management. The Council will also concentrate on how to train the District’s workforce through apprenticeships, certificate programs, and public-private partnerships. The District government is committed to using the existing workforce and economic development systems to ensure that the city leverages its resources to support the greening of the city as part of its core operations.

Sustainable South Bronx, another green jobs program, has trained 70 former drug addicts, welfare recipients, and convicts for jobs in landscaping, ecological restoration, green roof installation, and hazardous waste cleanup since 2003. The program is funded through private grants, and has helped almost 90 percent of its graduates find jobs working for the city parks department, local cemeteries, and environmental groups.

Solar Richmond, a similar program in Richmond, California, spends $1 million a year to train low-income residents in construction and solar panel installation. According to its founder, Michele McGeoy, program graduates are placed in positions where they earn an average of $15 to $18 an hour, plus benefits. Oakland, California has also has put aside $200,000 for a Green Collar Job Corps that will start training unemployed people this year in solar and green roof installation, green building practices, and home weatherization.

McGeoy acknowledges that because the environmental movement has become mainstream and “hip,” more college graduates are seeking entry-level jobs to break into the solar industry, which puts her clients at a disadvantage. To compensate for this, Solar Richmond teaches “soft” skills such as interviewing and time management, and has incorporated more environmental terminology into its training so graduates can “speak the lingo.” To deal with possible future declines in wages and benefits that could come from more trained workers in the green sector, actions would need to be taken in public policy, such as local hiring requirements and living wage laws.

These programs are already making a difference. Aundre Collins, a graduate of the Solar Richmond program, served time in prison, and was having trouble finding steady-paying work to support his family. After finishing the program, he now makes $500 a week as a junior installer for Sun Light and Power, a Richmond solar company. He is working his way up to becoming a supervisor.

“I vowed to change my ways,” Collins says. “Now, I’m on this roof and … at the end of the day, I’ve done something good for myself, my community, my children, and my pocket.”

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