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Hard Hats Swarm to Smart Energy

On an early spring morning in a classroom in New York City's hardscrabble East Harlem neighborhood, a group of four dozen young adults listens intently to a presentation by Elizabeth Yeampierre, president of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. The audience is smartly dressed: the men in chinos, button-down shirts, and ties; the women in slacks and blouses. At the end of the talk -- an overview of pressing environmental issues, including global warming and pollution's disproportionate impact on the poor -- hands shoot up with questions.

"Could you repeat the Web site?" one young man stands up to ask. "Is it EJCC dot.org or dot.net?" Another participant is concerned about the fate of the world's polar bears. "Why are they dying?" Shantee Linnen wants to know. "Is the water getting too warm?" Brandon Ingram, a Bronx native sitting in the front row, rises. He wears the lozenge-shaped glasses of a budding hipster and holds aloft Van Jones's best-selling 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy. "I've been reading this," Ingram says, displaying the cover for all to see. "I want everyone in the room to hear it." He reads aloud a passage that spells out a bright green future for job seekers: in 2006, there were 8.5 million jobs (and by the end of 2007, half a million new ones) in renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies, and the sector produced nearly $1 trillion in revenue and more than $100 billion in industry profits.

Ingram's colleagues are equally impressed. They are classmates in a 12-week green-construction training program run by Strive, a nonprofit group based in New York City. For many of them, long unemployed, work in the expanding green sector could be the break they've been waiting for. The program teaches both "hard" and "soft" job skills. At the practical level, students learn how to audit and then insulate a leaky house and construct new, energy-efficient buildings. They also learn the basics of public speaking and personal presentation -- hence all the snazzy ties in the room. And, through talks like Yeampierre's, they are regularly exposed to green ideas.

Job training programs like Strive, offering skills in everything from energy-efficiency retrofitting to the manufacture and maintenance of wind turbines, are springing up across the country. Together they represent a significant shift in the American workforce and, perhaps, in the environmental movement. President Barack Obama's $787 billion federal stimulus package promises at least $1 billion for green-job training; millions more are being invested by foundations, state and local governments, and private interests. In reading the passage from Jones's book, Ingram was tapping into a sentiment shared not only by his classmates but also by economists, politicians, working-class Americans, advocates for the poor, and stewards of the environment: the time for green employment has finally come.

Short Take: What's in a Green Job?

Wondering who actually gets green jobs in the real world, and what makes their day-to-day lives different from yours? Visit our Web site this June to follow reporter Liz Galst as she tracks new job trainees in Newark, New Jersey, who are making their way from the classroom to the workplace. Newark is home to some of the region's most comprehensive green-job education and placement programs. They are supported by state funding for internships in green construction that prepare workers to compete for jobs in government-funded urban housing projects. Later this summer, we'll track trainees in other American cities. Know of a program worth following? Tell us about it at onearth.org/greenjobs

The idea that blue-collar occupations -- make that "green-collar" occupations -- can help heal the earth while providing stable, well-paying employment was once simply a fantasy of a few underfunded dreamers. But in 2003 that fantasy came to life through the work of two pioneering nonprofits: Sustainable South Bronx, in New York City, and Baltimore's Civic Works. Now green-job training programs serve a broad spectrum of the population and attract a scale of financial backing that surprises even some of their earliest advocates.

Most of that support comes from governments -- federal, state, and local. Although the White House has not yet spelled out the details, several advocacy groups estimate that in addition to the $1 billion in Recovery Act funds that will go to green-job training, another $1 billion in stimulus money could be applied to training as well. And many states have created their own programs. Massachusetts is spending $2.9 million in the next two years to teach job skills in energy efficiency and clean energy. California has cobbled together $20 million in federal, state, and private funding to initiate a pilot California Green Corps, which will train at least 1,000 "at-risk" young adults for jobs "in California's emerging green economy."

Meanwhile, training by unions is growing exponentially. At the Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA), whose 800,000 members work in construction, demolition, and other industries, more than half of its $6 million annual national training budget "is going into green training," says John LeConche, executive director of the union's training arm. (LiUNA educates approximately 120,000 workers at 70 local centers each year.)

"On the job site, it used to be about speed, not waste," says Jim Urtz, the union's curriculum developer. "Now we're thinking about recycling and efficiency."

Many of the country's community colleges, which have long collaborated with employers to prepare high school graduates for jobs in local industries, are getting in on the action, too.

"The demand for this curriculum is becoming huge," says Melonee Docherty, an instructional designer for the Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center, which develops curricula for high schools and community colleges. Docherty says that as many as 200 of the nation's 1,177 community colleges offer concentrations in wind-power technology, green building, and biofuels.

And with good reason: green workers are in high demand. The job placement rate for graduates of the wind-energy program at Iowa Lakes Community College, in Estherville, Iowa, has been 100 percent since 2004, when the program was founded with 15 students. September's incoming class will have 102 students.

Student demand has likewise skyrocketed for the alternative-energy engineering technology program at Lansing Community College in Michigan. "When we started in 2005, we had 42 students," says program coordinator David Wilson. "This spring semester alone, we had 232." His typical student is in his or her mid- to late thirties; many of them are former autoworkers. Most claim that the industry "failed them as far as their life goals and they want to find something more reliable," Wilson says.

Brandon Ingram came to Strive after dropping out of college (twice, in fact), working off the books a bit, and "trying to run in the streets," he says. An aspiring musician, he signed up with the city's Young Adult Internship Program, which serves out-of-work New Yorkers between the the ages of 16 and 24, but failed to land a job. "My caseworker suggested I look into construction and sent me here," he says. Now Ingram is a convert to the green-jobs faith, reaching out to the guys who hang out around his street corner. "I tell them, 'You need to get into this. They're going to be generating a whole lot of jobs.'"

Similar street corner conversations are going on in a number of poorer communities, where green-job training programs are providing the so-called hard-to-employ with a decent shot at good-paying work. Take the city of Baltimore, where B'More Green, sponsored by the nonprofit Civic Works, educates residents in the basics of brownfield remediation and other types of hazardous waste cleanup. The program has a 90 percent job placement rate and a long-term retention rate of 80 percent -- impressive figures given that its graduates include a significant number of ex-cons. "Our starting wage is between 12 and 16 bucks an hour," says supervisor John Mello. "Most of these jobs come with benefits. Or you can get them after six months."

While green jobs aren't the panacea for the current economy, the numbers continue to be encouraging. In January, the American Solar Energy Society forecast that there could be as many as 37 million new jobs in renewable energy and energy-efficiency industries by 2030. That's 17 percent of the projected national workforce.

By most measures, roughly 80 percent of those new green jobs will go to workers with less than four years of post–high school education -- people who are often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as indifferent or even hostile to the plans of environmentalists. Increasingly, though, the two sides are becoming one. In the end, the trickling down -- or rising up -- of the green economy may do far more than improve the economic lives of a great many Americans; it may also reconfigure the political base of the environmental movement."

At Strive, I've learned things I didn't know, like how we're breathing in all these emissions," Ingram says. "It makes me feel like I need to better myself. But I also need to get the word out in my community about how things need to change." He has a front-row seat. "This is the wave of the future," he says. "I see nothing but potential."

Related Tags: wind power, green jobs, Strive
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Liz Galst has written about environmental issues for the New York Times, Salon.com, Plenty, and other publications. She lives in New York City.

Civic Works has also developed a new green collar career program that employs and trains Baltimore's unemployed and underemployed residents to make residential energy efficiency improvements.

Learn more about this project here: http://www.civicworks.com/3E.html