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Meanwhile, the energy efficiency market is "the frozen tidal wave," explains Zabin. "That's how they refer to it in the industry."
The tidal wave hasn't thawed yet, but it will, Zabin insists, thanks in part to the $90 billion investment in the green industry from the stimulus package. Money that went to weatherization and energy-efficiency projects were released slowly, and their effects have yet to be felt — maybe even this year.
Much credit for popularizing the idea of green-collar jobs for underserved and unemployed communities can be traced back to Van Jones, who founded the social justice nonprofit Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and served a short and contested stint as White House green jobs czar.
It was 2001 when Jones and the Ella Baker Center began trying to popularize the idea of "green-collar" job training as a model that would use training programs and partnerships with government, unions, and employers to create "pathways out of poverty." The idea has since garnered varying levels of enthusiasm from job seekers, politicians, unions, environmentalists, educators, and activists — forging sometimes strained partnerships.
"The green economy was small, but it was really clear that there was and continues to be tons of venture capitalism," according to Ian Kim, director of the center's Green Collar Jobs Campaign. "Wherever you see large flows of VC money, you know you will see lots of growth, and lots of jobs right around the corner. We thought, 'Let's help to shape the green economy's growth now instead of pulling out picket signs later.'"
In 2004, the Ella Baker Center joined with the Apollo Alliance — a coalition that supports federal investment in a renewable energy economy — to try to influence the presidential agenda by pushing a package deal of clean energy and job creation.
It may have worked. Presidential candidate Barack Obama took up the mantle of green jobs, pledging to create 5 million green-collar jobs if he were elected. At the time, the clean energy sector was growing astronomically — with job creation outpacing all other sectors at a rate of 2.5 times faster between the years of 1998 and 2007, according to a Pew Research Center report released last year.
As a result, money for green jobs training programs began to flow, and programs like Richmond Build and Oakland Green Jobs Corps sprung into place. Many of the programs sought out low-income people of color — a group noticeably different from the demographic composition of the green industry up until that point.
Solar installer and former Solar Richmond instructor Koralie Hill described the shift: "Six years ago, when I did my training, it was mostly white folks, some international folks who were people of color. Most people learning solar were coming from college backgrounds and beyond. That's changed dramatically. Most recently a whole lot more tradespeople are trying to learn solar, a whole lot more people of color."
But even as the demographic composition of the workforce changed, the leadership of the companies themselves did not. According to 2008 Census data, white men dominated green occupations across all sectors and led 90 percent of companies in the construction and energy sectors, says Yvonne Liu, a researcher for Applied Research Center, a nonprofit racial justice think tank. Consequently, she argued, green jobs are not guaranteed to be any more equitable to people of color, women, and low-income people than any other industry.
"We're finding that despite the intentions of advocates for the green economy and people saying it's a pathway, race and gender disparities are still persisting in green jobs," Liu said.
Lana Kumar, 49, graduated last June from Oakland's Green Jobs Corps and then went on to complete an additional three-month solar installation program at Laney College. She has been trying to find solar work since. She was one of eight who interviewed for a solar job earlier this year, but she didn't get the position. "Certain solar companies just pick Caucasian males," Kumar said, reflecting on the experience.
Previously, she worked in the medical field, for a hospice and at Kaiser. Now she's in the Carpenter's Union apprenticeship program and has been volunteering with a solar company, Grid Alternatives, in order to keep her solar installation skills current. While she waits on the union's unemployment list, she's found a job outside her field, working with youth.
"A lot of my friends who did the solar program are now working at the bank, wherever. Nobody's doing solar right now," Kumar added. "But I still have hope. I do believe solar will start booming eventually."
To qualify for acceptance into Richmond Build, an applicant needs a high school diploma, or a GED, and a California driver's license. Sarmiento went to a couple years of college in San Mateo, but many in the program have had no college experience. Some are former prisoners or face other barriers to employment, like being extremely low-income or homeless.
"Our grads are competing with college grads," said the executive director and founder of Solar Richmond, Michele Mc Geoy. "Those college grads can go to the interviews and talk about Al Gore, rock climbing. There's a real culture gap.'"
To Liu from Applied Research Center, stories like Kumar's are not surprising in an industry where "policymakers and green firms don't consciously weave equity into a strategy for developing the green economy."