Medardo Sarmiento, a 49-year-old Richmond resident with a serious demeanor and sparkling brown eyes, wants a green-collar job. He's taking classes four days a week in Hayward to get his electrician trainee card, and working part-time for Richmond Build — a city-run, stimulus-funded, sixteen-week construction skills and green jobs pre-apprenticeship training program he graduated from last fall. Before the pre-apprenticeship, Sarmiento had no electrical experience and just a spattering of construction skills. Now, in the clean, garage-like building that is Richmond Build's third and newest training site, he shows off the model house built by students that he helped work on.
"It's a fifteen-hundred-foot house," Sarmiento announced proudly. "I wired it myself."
Sarmiento wants to become certified nationally as a solar electric installer. But electrical work is just a stop on the way to his final destination: "My main purpose is to get into the solar field, as a designer and installer. Later on — everybody says this — start my own company."
The dream of earning a living wage working in the burgeoning renewable-energy and energy-efficiency sector has captured the imaginations and hopes of many like Sarmiento, whose previous occupations include owning a restaurant in the Philippines and managing a hotel in South San Francisco.
In recent years, training programs like Richmond Build and the Oakland Green Jobs Corps have cropped up to provide "green jobs" construction skills — like installing solar panel and weatherproofing houses — to people in communities who have few resources and face high levels of unemployment and incarceration.
In 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Out of the $787 billion appropriated, $90 billion was earmarked for direct spending, programs, loan guarantees, and tax incentives to expand green industries, and another $500 million was allotted to green workforce training. Both the Richmond Build program where Sarmiento now works and the Oakland Green Jobs Corps program are funded primarily by stimulus money.
But are the freshly minted graduates getting hired?
So far, most of them are — but the majority of the jobs aren't green-collar. Graduates mostly found work on conventional construction jobs through unions that partner with training organizations or, to a lesser extent, on green projects funded by stimulus dollars.
What the data shows is that green job training is not the same thing as a green job. While funding continues to pour into the green economy and expectations for the field remain high, the sector's growth has been retarded by the same cash crunch that currently afflicts other industries. And the little hiring that is occuring often doesn't advance the social or racial goals held by many of green-collar training programs.
According to Sal Vaca, overseer of Richmond Build and Director of the Richmond's Employment and Training Department, the three-year-old, sixteen-week-long green jobs and pre-apprenticeship construction training program has a laudable job placement rate for its graduates. One quarter of Richmond Build's 250 graduates currently work in the green energy industry as auditors, solar installers, and assistant managers, Vaca says, and the other three quarters have found full-time, steady work in construction. Some of them have gone on to union apprenticeships, which are available to all Richmond Build graduates. He attributes the high placement rate to a local hiring ordinance that prioritizes Richmond Build graduates. Eighty percent of the work that graduates are getting is on public-sector projects, he said, paid for by stimulus dollars.
The green job placement rate of Oakland's Green Jobs Corps is higher than that of Richmond Build, according to Art Shanks, executive director of Oakland Green Jobs Corps' partner organization, Cypress Mandela. To date, he says 56 out of the total 91 graduates work green construction jobs, and all graduates become apprentices at local unions.
Nonetheless, solar work is much harder to come by. The field is often compared to residential construction, which has a 30 to 35 percent unemployment rate in California these days. Currently, only eleven out of the 250 Richmond Build graduates have found full-time, steady jobs in the solar industry, reported Solar Richmond, the nonprofit that teaches the solar portion of the training program.
That's despite the fact that in California, rooftop installations of solar panels doubled in 2008 since the previous year. And, according to a recent report by the nonprofit environmental justice think tank, the Greenlining Institute, "no other state stands to gain more from the success of the solar industry," with $3 out of every $5 from solar technology venture capital going to California.
Sarmiento hopes his hard work now will pay off eventually. He wants to work for Sunpower, a Richmond-based solar company. That's why he's attending the electrical courses and taking the national solar electrical certification test. It's not mandatory, but he hopes it will give him a competitive edge.
It's unclear how many green jobs have been created from stimulus-funded training programs — partially because tracking job placement rates are left to the individual agencies that received the money. The government has begun to define and track green jobs, but results won't be released until 2011.
"They say that twelve to thirteen jobs are created per million dollars of spending," said Carol Zabin, Research Director of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. She insisted that that isn't too much to spend. "A million dollars doesn't just go into wages. It goes into all of the expenses of the business. Labor is only one of them. Construction takes a lot of equipment. Let's put the major problem up front and center. We're experiencing 12 percent unemployment in California, and 30 percent unemployment in construction."