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What's needed, Liu believes, are labor standards like living wage and local hiring ordinances, and green jobs initiatives that can aspire to the proportional awarding of all contracts and resources relative to the racial, gender, and income-level composition of the communities where jobs are based. Such measures could very quickly raise the number of women and people of color benefiting from public-works contracts.
But many green employers and contractors who could hire training graduates are bitterly opposed to such local hire regulations and wage mandates that drive up their operating costs. One of them, Matt Golden, founded a green energy remodeling company, Recurve, based in San Francisco, six years ago. This past year the company grew by 80 percent. But "not very many" of his new hires are graduates from green jobs training programs, he said.
"We've really gone out of our way, and we're trying to help — we believe in them and want to help underserved communities," Golden said. "But it costs more to hire someone local from these programs than it does to hire an out-of-work residential construction worker.
"I'm totally against people telling me who to hire," he continued. "We want to hire from these programs, but they're competing against out-of-work residential construction workers who have years of experience. It's not cost-effective for me to hire someone out of these programs instead. You can't mandate demand. The focus of the social justice community is training all of these people into the industry. Why not use the money that's out there to subsidize these employees to make them cost-effective for contractors? ... My biggest fear is that we grow to depend on stimulus money. What will we have left after it's gone? It would be a house of cards, and when the bubble bursts — did we really serve underserved communities by giving them a job for twelve months?"
Both Zabin and Liu agreed with Golden's last point. "It's a real disserve to focus on training without creating jobs," Liu said.
Zabin and Golden support passing the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, proposed federal legislation that would establish a $6 billion rebate program for energy efficiency improvements in residential buildings. And Zabin said retaining Assembly Bill 32, California's law curbing greenhouse gas emissions, is crucial in expanding the clean energy economy. Finally, Liu and Zabin believe that what's really needed is a massive public works program on the scale of the New Deal during the 1930s depression.
"We could be doing a huge rebuilding of our aging infrastructure in an energy efficiency way — huge programs to rebuild schools, public buildings and make them energy efficient through retrofits, build public transit infrastructure, do environmental remediation, saving the levees in the Delta in an environmentally friendly way, cleaning up the oil spill," Zabin said.
At the Richmond Build 3 building, three tall men in their twenties, wearing hoodies, wander into the building and talk to one of the Richmond Build graduates who, like Sarmiento, has also found work for the organization after graduating. In a small, windowed room in the middle of the building, a dozen men gulp coffee during a hazardous materials training.
Sarmiento warmly greets another of his fellow Richmond Build graduates. He has shoulder-length curly hair and tattoos on his forearms. He's working for both Richmond Build and the Rising Sun Energy Center, teaching energy efficiency. He pauses briefly on his way out the door.
"This is a great program," he said simply. "There's nothing bad I can say about it."
Sarmiento brims with enthusiasm about new changes in the program and remains optimistic about his future, despite the seemingly grim prospects in the solar job market. He mentions that Obama supports renewable energy.
"I'm sure there'll be a lot of programs going on for that kind of financing," he said, looking confident.