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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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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."

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