The climate crisis is here—the historic wildfires that swept the West and New York City’s deadly flooding are just some of the weather disasters that hit nearly one in three Americans over the summer. Though the federal government finally seems on the verge of partially confronting climate change through Congress’s infrastructure and reconciliation bills, these solutions are incomplete.
Comprehensive climate policy must not only include funding for jobs; it must also create pathways into them—particularly for people of color, women, and other groups in vulnerable communities who have not historically gained employment from infrastructure investment.
The Democrats’ reconciliation and bipartisan infrastructure bills include many different green infrastructure initiatives that will require new skilled workers. Yet these bills do not offer solutions to meet the challenges facing environmental justice communities—communities that have suffered disproportionate burdens of environmental hazards—to ensure they can attain newly created, family-sustaining jobs.
That is because the hundreds of billions of dollars in clean energy investments that congressional Democrats have envisioned cannot alone improve the public workforce system that historically has left workers in frontline communities behind. The existing system is extremely decentralized, complex, and underfunded. As a result, no matter how many new programs the federal government backs or how much it commits to those investments’ landing in disadvantaged areas, it will likely not be enough to create meaningful change for these communities.
In theory—because this is how the system operates in many other countries that spend more on workforce development—job seekers should be able to easily find openings and training programs through which they’ll learn necessary skills. Local or regional coordinating bodies should work in tandem to actively collect and share detailed information on job opportunities and needed skills, recruit potential employees and assess their training needs. They should then work with stakeholders to provide the high-quality education necessary to successfully place people in jobs.
This vision does not match up with reality.
Public infrastructure projects like those in Congress’s bills require bringing together multiple funding streams—including some of the more than 40 offered by the federal government—and interest groups, including employers, training providers, organized labor, and community-based organizations that recruit trainees and provide supportive services to them.
For example, say a city wants to install new electric vehicle chargers. It could partner with unions, community colleges, and CBOs to bring in and train workers, and leverage funds from the departments of Energy and Transportation, in addition to state and local tax levies and philanthropic dollars. Yet each funding stream’s reporting requirements and restrictions make project execution more complicated, and can potentially result in delays or outright failure.
The result of this complexity is that successful project implementation requires extraordinary effort by local officials who must navigate this disjointed ecosystem along with the people it ostensibly serves. Job seekers from historically underserved groups in particular are often left to navigate between uncoordinated training and job placement offerings of varying quality. Meanwhile, industrial, manufacturing, construction, and other employers continue to hire trained workers who are predominantly white and male.
This doesn’t have to be the case, as I lay out in my new report—policy-makers can leverage their public dollars to make equity requirements of contractors, establishing prevailing wages, generous benefits, the use of high-quality training programs, and a minimum ratio of apprentices. Lawmakers can also require that new trainees and employees come from specific geographies or nontraditional groups for the trades, such as women, the formerly incarcerated, or residents of specific areas. If governments require regular data reporting and set up oversight bodies that include community representatives, they can fine contractors or clawback funds when equity goals are not met.
Progressives and many business and economics experts have disparaged the notion of a “skills gap,” the complaint by employers that people don’t have the needed skills to fill job openings. The common, justified rebuttal is that would-be workers are not lacking in motivation, but have had less economic opportunity due to centuries of discrimination, and that employers who claim they can’t hire skilled workers aren’t willing to invest in training their employees.
There’s truth to these arguments, but it’s also true that, for example, an HVAC company replacing greenhouse gas–emitting air-conditioners and gas heaters with air source heat pumps actually isn’t well-equipped to teach everything to a would-be employee. The right trade school or community college is equipped to fill much of this gap, though, and policy-makers have the tools to ensure that disadvantaged people get quality training from these institutions and are then connected to high-quality jobs that are a good fit for their new skills.
There is a coming surge of green jobs—regardless of West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s actions—and it is unclear whether there will be enough people to fill them immediately, jeopardizing a rapid clean energy transition. But even if government contractors invest in training without significant support from policy-makers, the problem of who fills these jobs is real. Take New York City as an example—will the new employees performing mandated deep energy retrofits of the city’s buildings or constructing flood protections mostly be people of color or immigrants from the five boroughs, or will they be white men commuting in from Long Island and New Jersey?
The last time green jobs were prominently touted by progressives was as part of President Obama’s stimulus, and environmental justice communities felt burned as the jobs didn’t materialize. We cannot waste this new opportunity. With proper policy and program design, new sustainability and resiliency investments could also begin to ameliorate racial, gender, and economic injustice, advancing us toward a far fairer society.