Is 'Green' The Place To Look For Job Growth?

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In a city that wants to be greener and has plenty of residents in need of good jobs, workforce specialists are wondering if the “green collar” job sector can grow fast enough to address both pressing environmental needs and pressing economic ones.

They see a neat justice in the possibility that lower-income New Yorkers, whose communities are some of the city’s most environmentally degraded, could be employed on projects to improve those areas – as well as to initiate environmentally sustainable approaches in a variety of other neighborhoods and fields. That's especially because today, a green-collar job is defined as more than merely a job in an environmental field. It also provides a family-sustaining wage, safe working conditions and chances for career advancement.

“These are cutting-edge jobs. These are the jobs of the future,” said Naomi Fatt, managing director at Urban Agenda, a local environmental research and advocacy organization. “Sustainability is going to be a real engine for prosperity.”

Although green-collar jobs are not new, with groups like the Bronx-based Green Worker Cooperatives promoting them for more than four years now, the concept is gathering steam. A conference arranged by Urban Agenda on June 24 brought together 130 leaders from 83 organizations involved in labor, workforce development, education, community-based development and environmental justice organizations to create a coordinated, citywide workforce development plan by spring 2009. This taskforce would help ensure that New Yorkers capture the jobs created by increased environmental sustainability. The conference illustrated that there's plenty of interest in green-collar jobs and there has been a real head start in terms of policy, but there was a lack of information about the implementation of these policies.

Green-collar jobs signify an important category of workforce opportunity because they have low barriers to entry and provide workers with chances for advancement in sectors that are bound for growth – such as building retrofits, energy efficient buildings, recycling, renewable energy, urban forestry and brownfield remediation.

Most green-collar jobs are middle-skill level, requiring more education than high school, but less than a four-year degree. But jobs such as building cleaners, porters, maintenance workers, window cleaners, superintendents and stationary engineers are well within reach for lower-skilled and low-income workers – and people with other barriers to employment, such as a prison record – because they don’t require a high school diploma, as long as there is access to training programs and appropriate supports.

If those sound a lot like traditional jobs, that’s because most green-collar jobs are retrofitted regular jobs, says Jim Brown, a senior policy analyst in the state Department of Labor. There is no official number of green jobs in the NYC job market; it’s more of a concept than a specific designation. “Most of the jobs that would be created or are currently involved in ‘green’ are traditional jobs that already exist,” Brown said. “There are some environmental-specific jobs, but most of that technology is incorporated in already existing occupations.”

The New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC) is commissioning a green sector study to shed light on the size and growth rates of the sector. The mayor's PlaNYC 2030 blueprint for sustainable growth has created a push for green job development.

“The City is very aware of the emerging Green Collar jobs and the need for training in ‘green skills,’” EDC spokeswoman Janel Paterson wrote in an e-mail. “There are many training programs under way right now. It is encouraging to see how many efforts are under way.” Paterson said EDC has compiled a list of different programs that are available in the city, but did not provide the list. She said that because green-collar job skills are and will be in high demand, a worker who possesses expertise in a green area may be able to negotiate a better income than another applicant who would have to learn on the job.

The construction industry, for example, has seen an increase in demand for workers with “green skills.” According to Rebecca Lurie, who attended the conference and is a director at the Consortium for Worker Education, “We have a job training program that we do for the construction industry. Our experience gives a good sense to see where the skill shortages are, and this has helped us see what we can do for retrofitting, basically green-collar jobs.”

The Consortium's training center provides services to a range of clients, such as union members, high school graduates and residents of public housing. Lurie runs two courses through the Sustainable, Mechanical and Retrofitting Technologies (SMART) curriculum, which has incorporated some green-collar training. “We are trying to get people ready with the skills they need to get jobs at these retrofitting greener companies,” said Lurie.

Environmental justice is becoming more a part of the green-collar mix, as well. Low-income communities and communities of color have borne a disproportionate share of the city’s pollution for decades. “If you look at where there is greater pollution, if you look at where there are landfills, if you look at sewage treatment programs – many of those are in low income communities to begin with,” said Fatt. But now advocates think they can take advantage of the growing market of green-collar jobs to undo years of pollution and offer economic opportunities instead.

“If we are going to create new jobs that can improve environmental conditions, those jobs should go first and foremost to the communities that have been bearing the brunt of pollution for so long,” said Omar Freilla, who founded the Green Worker Cooperatives, an incubator for eco-friendly worker co-ops. “It would be a just match, to address past wrongs by creating job opportunities that can make things better.”

The South Bronx, where Freilla grew up, is a magnet for polluting industries like power plants and waste transfer stations. Through the Green Worker Cooperatives he opened a recycling center called ReBuilders Source. It’s a retail store that sells kitchen sinks, doors, cabinetry, flooring, tiles and lighting fixtures – things in good condition that would normally get trashed whenever people are doing renovations or clearing out their inventory. This is one example where green-collar jobs are creating a neighborhood that is healthier both environmentally and economically.

Despite the high-energy, capacity crowd at the conference last month, advocates for the sector’s expansion still have a long way to go. “The policy may be ahead of the program. We’re moving ahead on policy, but who’s going to do the work [at these green-collar jobs]?” said Fatt. “Let’s get a handle on what’s out there now and on what more needs to be done. Otherwise you can end up training somebody for a job that doesn’t exist.”

It is not clear how, or whether, green-collar jobs will become a pathway out of poverty. “I would want to warn that green-collar jobs are no panacea out of poverty. I’m passionate about cleaning up our environment and making sure there is a workforce who can do it, but by itself it’s not a solution to poverty,” said Lurie. “People still need work-ready skills and more mechanical and technical skills than our failing education system gave them.”

Though there are fair concerns about the potential of green-collar jobs, their allure gives the city's low-income job seekers new motivation to try to climb on board. “The challenges are not on the part of people trying to get a job. The challenge is in creating the jobs themselves,” said Freilla.

– Abraham Paulos

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