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The Promise of the Green Jobs | The Nation

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The Promise of the Green Jobs

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KJ Meyer

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"It's a rush," Alvarro Jasso explains as he talks about standing atop a windmill 260 feet in the air. An Operation Maintenance Servicer for Suzlon Energy, Alvarro thinks the lengthy 20-minute ladder climb to the top is well worth the effort.

But perched on a sliver of steel, twenty-six stories above the broad expanse of the Texas panhandle is a far cry from the eight-by-fourteen foot jail cell he found himself in four years ago. Alvarro's trip from prison to views rivaling some CEO's was made possible by a growing trend of economic empowerment programs creating " green-collar jobs" for low-income youth in the nation's emerging renewable energy economy.

After being released from jail, Alvarro ran across a program called YouthBuild, where he learned advanced carpentry and practical job skills that helped land his current job. YouthBuild is one of several programs across the country striving for inclusion of people from low-income communities in our nation's developing green economy. One in eight Americans live in poverty and about 1.7 million poor youths were out of school and out of work in 2005, according to a recent report by the Center for American Progress.

Long before green-collar jobs became economic empowerment buzzwords, YouthBuild's founder, Dorthy Stoneman, realized the potential that equipping young people with practical job skills could have on both their employment potential and their communities. Over 25 years ago, Stoneman started YouthBuild, a youth empowerment program now serving over 200 areas around the world by teaching at-risk youth valuable trades while building housing for low-income communities. Training 7,000 at-risk individuals a year, YouthBuild helps youths earn their GEDs, start a business, and have a chance at a new life with eighty percent of participants continuing on to college or jobs, according to the agency.

Since YouthBuild pioneered the concept of providing pathways out of poverty for low-income youth for over a generation, it's no surprise that the organization has joined the chorus of groups embracing the recent green-collar jobs movement. Eva Blake, YouthBuild's Green Initiative Director explained the organizational shift over the past few years in gearing its housing rehabilitation and construction programming toward the emerging green economy.

"YouthBuild calls for greater social and environmental equity from the economic gains that a new green economy promises...," Blake stated, "It was a natural transition for YouthBuild programs to embrace the principles and practices of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and green building as opportunities for students ... while preparing for some of the fastest growing sectors in today's economy."

According to the American Solar Energy Society, 2006 saw $970 billion in industry revenues and 8.5 million jobs in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors. The Apollo Alliance, a joint venture of labor and environmental groups, illustrates that a considerable investment in renewable technology could lead to over 3 million new green jobs, fuel $1.4 trillion in new Gross Domestic Product and produce $284 billion in net energy savings.

According to Blake, "The YouthBuild construction site provides a ready training ground for learning retrofitting, the installation of renewable energy, sustainable landscaping, arboriculture, recycling and materials reuse, and other promising green collar sector skills."

Building Pathways Out of Poverty

Alvarro thinks his green job maintaining and servicing windmills pays well and there's the potential to advance in the company. But his current success and the opportunities that lay in front of him are a long way from where he was just a few years ago.

"It was pretty much from job to job, hanging out with the wrong crowd, getting in trouble a lot" Alvarro explains of life after he dropped out of high school in ninth grade. "It was pretty rough ... being out there and not having a job or keeping a job."

After several tough years, Alvarro finally landed in jail with a felony conviction. Describing jail as a "pretty good wake-up call," Alvarro found himself at a turning point. He earned his GED while in jail, and when he got out, found YouthBuild. Similar to the way the program helps other individuals from low-income communities, YouthBuild provided a platform for Alvarro to learn skills that transformed his life.

YouthBuild also sees its mission as more than putting graduates in the renewable energy sector. According to Blake, "The Green Industry Career Pathways project bridges interested YouthBuild students to careers in arboriculture and other green industries ... ." These programs "link YouthBuild students to industry professionals and teach the youth marketable skills in arboriculture, landscaping, and forestry through work days and internships."

James Harvey is an individual who directly benefitted from his green job training. A self-described "straight hoodlum" from Brockton Massachusetts, at age 16, Harvey spent more time cutting class than anything else. Owning his own landscaping business was not even a thought in James' mind. Today, at age 20, that's exactly what he's getting ready to do. He started with YouthBuilld four years ago and has earned his GED and learned the carpentry trade by building houses with the program.

From there James got a job with the Trustees of Reservations--a local non-profit dedicated to preserving parks and other outdoor spaces for public use. Now he does landscaping and preservation with an eye toward owning his own business one day.

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite such success stories, myriad obstacles remain in getting green-collar job programs up and running. From city zoning laws to state and federal tax incentives, creating the infrastructure to support a large-scale green-collar jobs movement is significant and unique to different locales.

According to Blake, two of the green-collar workforce's biggest tasks are convincing hesitant employers about the potential of unemployed and out-of-school youth and setting realistic expectations for the youth. Blake also points out that, "As an industry that has largely not been known for its cultural, economic, and racial diversity begins to absorb larger numbers of people of color and people with varied backgrounds, businesses and organizations will also be challenged to provide their staff with tools for cultural competency."

Many states and communities also have distinct challenges to green-collar job development. These include individual state wage laws and local hiring practices, uncertain government support for the industry, and a general lack of understanding of the industry. The primary obstacle though, is a need for better coordination and planning for green-collar projects.

For example, when renewable energy and energy efficiency projects are created, out-of-state laborers are often brought in due to lack of skilled workers in a given area. Therefore, one of the primary focuses for most regions is creating a workforce that can mirror the potential jobs in any given area. For area business and government leaders this means creating a plan that prioritizes local hiring and includes at-risk youth from green-collar development programs.

The solution to these challenges lies in a systematic approach that plans for worker development along with the potential for future jobs. The Greener Pathways report put together by Green for All advocacy group suggests a list of principles for planning these job development programs. According to the report, "[S]tates are in an ideal position to develop models now to build a strong and equitable green economy."

Above all, green collar job programs should be developed in coordination with planning for potential regional job growth, the report argues. A series of procedures that begins with a strong understanding of what energy regulations should be put in place and what potential jobs will result is the beginning. From there a support structures must be established. These include state and local government financing packages, emphasizing local hiring practices, public-private partnerships, and effective state and local ordinances.

Well-planned programs will allow more low-income youth to be able to experience their true potential and reap the benefits of a good job in the new energy economy. At a time of economic decline and rising unemployment, the timing for a new jobs program couldn't be better. Just ask Alvarro Jasso about his feelings at the top of that windmill. "How can I explain it?... If you get the right time of day, if you get that sunrise, it's a sight to see."

KJ Meyer is an organizer and advocate for a variety of renewable energy initiatives. He lives in Denver, Co., where he occasionally takes time off from paying his law school loans to play with his dog in the mountains.

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