Jobs, Yes. Green-Collar Ones, No.

The green economy is growing, but it's still an uphill climb for many green-collar trainees.

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.”

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.”

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.


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