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Harnessing the Power of Green Jobs

Excitement is high for the concept, but is it potential or actual energy?

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Aundre Collins says his moment of revelation came last fall as he stood on the rooftop of a solar-paneled warehouse in Richmond's Iron Triangle. From that unobstructed vantage point, beyond the shimmering panels, the 26-year-old ex-convict saw the multi-billion dollar Chevron refinery's seething smokestacks set against the sprawling streets of one of America's poorest, most-violent neighborhoods. "That's what really put it into perspective for me," says the Richmond resident and father of three, who now works for Berkeley's Sunlight and Power installing solar panels on the houses of the eco-conscious. "I was diagnosed at five with chronic asthma. The refinery's right there and it just took me."

The rooftop awakening came at the end of a free, nine-week construction-training course offered by a program called Richmond BUILD. Collins took the course as a last resort. A product of East Oakland, he had gone to Grambling University in Louisiana on a football scholarship. But at the end of his second year, he got into trouble. He was convicted of aggravated burglary and handed up to 45 years in prison. However, a family lawyer got the term reduced to eighteen months, and on the day after his release he was on a bus to California. Back in the East Bay with no college degree and a criminal record, Collins spent the next few years struggling to find work. "It was hard," he recalled. "My record was getting me shot down one job opportunity after another."

During the first seven weeks of Richmond BUILD's training program, Collins learned basic construction skills and took a liking to carpentry. The region's refineries seemed to offer the best prospects for entry-level trade positions. If a job opened up, working for Chevron, practically in his backyard, seemed like a no-brainer. "I'd been preached union, union, union. Whoever called me first — Chevron, Tesoro, BP, whatever."

The final segment of the course was led by a small nonprofit called Solar Richmond, which provides free solar training and offers low-cost installation to city residents. It was something Collins knew nothing about and would've been fine skipping altogether. "I was just giving tree huggers their time to talk," he recalled.

The training, led by the organization's volunteer executive director Michele McGeoy, was infused with the notion that green jobs not only had a positive environmental impact, but also could provide solid economic opportunity to people who really needed it. And that's when Collins had his epiphany. "I fell fully for what she was saying," said Collins, a religious man. "I'm blessed to be one of the chosen few that she allowed to be a part of this."

Two months after the course ended, and armed with only a couple weeks of solar training, Collins, with McGeoy's help, got a position with Sunlight and Power as a photovoltaic installer. He was the first graduate of Richmond BUILD to land an alternative energy job. He now makes around $1,200 every two weeks with full benefits. It's a modest salary, but a significant improvement over his past employment, especially the stint behind bars.

"For a guy who has worked for eight cents an hour, that's a great come up," Collins said, noting that he'd likely be making more in a union job at Chevron, but wouldn't consider it, even if they offered him double. "I can go home everyday and feel happy that I'm doing something good. ... I'm from where green-collar work is going to have to begin — people who have no jobs and willing and able to do the manual labor."

Collins proclaims himself the "poster boy" for the local green-collar jobs movement — an increasingly high-visibility effort to extend environmentally sustainable work opportunities to urban young adults of color who haven't succeeded in the conventional economy.

With the help of billions in private investment and local and state government incentives, the alternative energy industry, and solar in particular, has exploded in California, resulting in thousands of new jobs in panel installation and solar cell production. In 2007 alone, as the traditional economy slipped toward recession, there was a 40 percent increase in revenue for solar, wind, biofuels and fuel cells, topping $77 billion, according to Clean Edge, a research firm studying the clean energy industry. The Bay Area is home to more than 30 percent of the approximately 800 solar firms in California, according to a recent industry workforce study through California Community Colleges, which found that 75 percent of employers have difficulty finding entry-level workers and that a majority support vocational training programs.

In response, nonprofit vocational training programs like Solar Richmond and Berkeley's Rising Sun Energy Center have sprouted in urban areas around the country, eager to see the work and wealth trickle down the class ladder. Among the most visible groups, and one that deserves much of the credit for the national buzz about green-collar jobs, is Oakland's non-profit Ella Baker Center.

Van Jones founded the organization in 1996 to offer violence and imprisonment alternatives to urban communities. Long a rising star among black leaders and social-justice activists, Jones only recently entered the vastly white, middle-class arena of environmentalism. When he began preaching the green-collar jobs gospel in 2005, he hit the PR jackpot. Jones advocates a "third-wave" environmentalism that goes beyond traditional approaches of regulation and conservation — harnessing hot green trends to invest in low-income communities. While the opportunities in many low-skill economic sectors are shrinking, the green economy is booming, which Jones' contingent has identified as the perfect way to meet people's needs by offering living-wage jobs in the industry.

"A lot of environmental initiatives are not talking jobs," said Aaron Lehmer, a program manager with the Ella Baker Center, noting that low-income folks are not figured into many green campaigns. "That's starting to change. This can be an economic generator."

The concept has been a media lightening rod that's landed Jones and his group in the limelight as champions of the cause. It has won them political allies among a widespread contingent of leaders on either side of the aisle and been a repeated topic in the presidential race, with both Clinton and Obama outspoken in their support of green-jobs programs. The topic was even mentioned favorably in Republican presidential debates earlier this year.

In collaboration with the energy coalition group Oakland Apollo Alliance, the Ella Baker Center drafted the details of the much-anticipated Oakland Green Jobs Corps program, which it hopes to launch this fall. It will be funded by $250,000 from the city's share of settlement money related to the California energy crisis, of which more than $2 million is expressly earmarked for energy-efficiency projects. The Ella Baker Center won't actually be running the show once an already-established workforce training program is selected in May to manage the project. The show is expected to be up and running by this summer.

Intended to provide "green pathways out of poverty" to young adults in Oakland who face any number of employment barriers, the program hopes to take on forty participants, ages eighteen to 35. A three-month soft-skills training course will focus on everything from remedial education and job readiness skills to basic environmental concepts. For their hard-skills training, participants will then be placed in six-month paid internships with employers from a council of local green businesses. Ten companies, Sunlight and Power included, showed up for the first meeting in March.

With the flagship Oakland program still in the works, last year Jones also took his cause to a national level, launching Green for All. The Washington-based group, comprising some of the rising stars of urban environmentalism, was created to build coalitions between labor unions, business, and community groups while urging policy makers, locally and nationally, to invest in green-collar job programs.

Among the politicians paying attention was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who introduced the Green Jobs Act. Signed into law last December, the legislation authorizes $125 million annually to develop training programs in a range of green industries, including $25 million toward living-wage job creation in low-income communities. Lehmer is optimistic the funding will come through by next year.

Meanwhile in Sacramento, Jones and a coalition of labor and environmental groups are working with Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez and Senator Darrell Steinberg on state green-collar jobs bills that would help grow the renewable energy and clean technology sectors, while investing in job training for at-risk youth. There also is talk of offering certification courses in community colleges throughout the state.

With all the accolades, it's easy to forget that it's still mostly potential energy — with a lot of theoretical support, but fairly little hard cash.

"It's not enough," said Lehmer, regarding the Oakland program. He said Mayor Ron Dellums has pledged to help work for funding, but makes no promises. "We'd like to see more philanthropic and private support for this effort."

Proponents of the project say it offers training, support, and the potential for gainful employment to a population that needs it most, while also furthering energy-efficiency goals by addressing a labor shortage in the green-energy industry.

San Francisco State University professor Raquel Pinderhughes has studied green-collar jobs and helped the Ella Baker Center draft its plan. She says employers are the key to landing participants long-term employment. "They can't promise they'll take program graduates," she said. "But they are committed to taking interns, and also committed to the idea of taking folks different from their current labor pool."

While a hiring commitment would be nice, she said, companies are taking some risk in agreeing to work with unskilled laborers. And the incremental training and apprenticeship approach will greatly increase the likelihood of full-time employment further down the line.

For the Oakland program to be successful, Pinderhughes said several factors are necessary, including city hall's direct support. It's one thing for the mayor and city council to endorse such a program, she noted, but it remains to be seen whether they will actively work to ensure both its longevity and that the program's dollars are wisely spent. More importantly, no funding has been secured past the program's first year. "How do we ensure the sustainability of the program?" she asked. "I think we're all concerned. It would be sad if we had all these things in place and couldn't keep it going."

McGeoy of Solar Richmond shares these concerns. Her program has been operating for a year, and despite a small budget and less recognition, boasts a successful track record, with eight of its graduates employed in the industry.

She believes in the mission of the proposed Oakland Green Jobs Corps, but questions the internship plan. "It's a good step," said McGeoy, a former software industry executive. "But I am concerned that too much of the funding is going to subsidize employers instead of building capacity for the supporting organization."

Even with the boom, McGeoy said, competition is getting fierce, with an applicant pool that increasingly consists of college grads with related degrees. "The field is so hip right now that everyone wants to get a foot in the door. ... Employers have to choose between a Stanford graduate and a guy with a GED."

It's this obstacle, she believes, that makes it necessary for green-collar training programs to take less of a social-service approach and more of a market-based one by capitalizing on the industry's demand for manual labor. That means providing quick and dirty hard-skills training and getting participants full-wage jobs. Her project seeks to do this by getting her students in temp positions with potential to turn into full-time jobs. Internships, she fears, may carry connotations of charity and ultimately subsidize employers by providing cheap labor.

While she is pleased that the cash is going directly into the pockets of workers, her hope is that these dollars are spent on public works that benefit the community such as doing free energy efficiency retrofits on local non-profits.

"What's so different about this field is we need these guys to be doing the work; they're strong and willing," McGeoy said. College grads generally only stick with the manual labor long enough to get into management, she added. "Being up on a roof is hot. It's not pretty."

Pinderhughes and Lehmer understand McGeoy's sentiment, but insist that for their program to be truly effective, a job-training component — both in terms of hard and soft skills — is necessary to adequately prepare a population with largely empty résumés and sometimes lengthy criminal records.

"We're more inclined to talk about them as on-the-job training opportunities that help prepare trainees for careers in green industry," Lehmer said. "There are definitely different schools of thought ... but the model is designed to assist those with barriers to employment that will likely need more hands-on work experience to get them back into the job market."

But for Aundre Collins, the now fully employed graduate of Solar Richmond, the internship is a hard sell.

"I think the internship is going to be a deterrent, especially for the people they're aiming for," said Collins, who added that he would rather wait for a sure thing rather than do a long training that might not pan out. "I mean even an unemployed person doesn't want to hear 'internship.' They want a job."

Collins remains confident that despite competition, employers will still go for determined, hard-working applicants willing to do the less glamorous tasks.

"People with an education are going to want educated positions," he said. "You're not going to want to get out there on top of roofs in summer and sweat, not for a long time anyway. Eventually you want to get your hands in the big pot of money. But if you're trained for manual labor, to grunt and hump it out, that's what you're going to go for."

Collins said it helps having a job that offers benefits and a living wage and provides some basic gratification, especially for many people he knows who've only had access to menial low-wage work. "We're cool with the trickle down. We're cool staying on the roofs for five, ten, fifteen years."

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