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Green Building -- The Path to High-Road Jobs

06/19/2014 06:52 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2014

Equity. Economy. Environment.

This "triple bottom line" defines the "high-road" mission of the Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC), a national workforce intermediary that links disadvantaged populations (equity) to careers (economy) in the emerging green-building sector (environment).

ECC uses a unique approach to connecting people to work. Most workforce organizations are singularly focused on "supply-side strategies" -- the tough task of preparing people for work through education and training. But, the fact is, the barriers to employment are just as likely to be related to employers' hiring practices, wage and career structures, work environments and a limited number of quality jobs. ECC, therefore, focuses first and foremost on "demand-side strategies" -- creating jobs that lead to quality careers through policies, financing and project development and ensuring that low-income populations gain access to these careers.

Incorporated in 2010, ECC is an unprecedented network of business, labor and community groups; civil rights and social justice advocates; development intermediaries; and research and technical assistance providers committed to sustainable development in U.S. metro areas.

As a workforce intermediary focusing on sector-based workforce development, ECC was pleased to contribute a chapter to the Aspen Institute's new book, Connecting People to Work, whose focus meshes seamlessly with our role and mission. We hope our case study will help illuminate the challenges, opportunities and future directions of workforce development as well as the intermediary's role of bridging the needs of employers and workers.

And with the Obama Administration's renewed focus on climate change and energy efficiency, our approach of creating jobs for disadvantaged workers in the burgeoning green building sector is timely indeed.

Taking the High Road

So how do we bring disadvantaged populations into the economic mainstream? By working with local and national building trade unions to open up their apprenticeship programs to low-income people of color, which leads to jobs doing energy-efficiency retrofits of municipal buildings, universities, schools and hospitals.

The focus on the green building sector is the way to go. The American Society of Civil Engineers' 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure defined energy efficiency/renewable energy as the "sweet spot" for immediate job creation. Multiple other studies foresee millions of new jobs in those sectors.

Also helping to drive a clean-energy economy are innovative financing mechanisms, local and state policies such as building codes and carbon-reduction targets, continuous development of alternative-energy technologies and extreme weather conditions precipitated by climate change and U.S. energy security needs.

Challenges: Job Creation, Quality, Access

But challenges persist in the areas of job creation/demand generation, job quality and job access. So, despite the seeming inevitability of a clean-energy economy, questions remain. The good news is that 57 percent of clean-energy jobs are in construction. The bad news is that not all construction jobs are "good" jobs -- in fact, most are not.

Academic degrees and energy efficiency certification don't necessarily lead to jobs, family wages or long-term careers.

Union training programs do offer paid on-the-job training and career development, and they position and support trainees (apprentices) for a full range of construction jobs, even beyond the energy sub-sector. However, low-income communities of color have historically been excluded from union apprenticeships, and good union construction jobs are increasingly rare as labor agreements become increasingly rare.

ECC's Workforce Intermediary Role

This is where ECC's role as a workforce intermediary becomes critical. And it's no accident that the three core elements of ECC's operating model - a strong civic infrastructure, demand generation and workforce development - correspond, respectively, to its triple bottom line of equity, environment and a high-road economy.

  • We achieve a strong civic infrastructure by bringing together stakeholders (labor, community, business and government), nationally and locally, to advance a high-road, clean-energy agenda.

  • We create demand by focusing on project development (both to move the market and to demonstrate the value of high-road projects), new financing structures and policy development (using policy levers to stimulate market demand).
  • As for workforce development, legally-binding Community Workforce Agreements specifying local hiring and contracting, wage standards, journey-apprenticeship ratios, performance guarantees and more are the single most important tool for ensuring high-quality construction and clean-energy jobs.
  • And the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum (MC3) -- an AFL-CIO-approved national pre-apprenticeship program delivered by community-based training organizations in partnership with local building-trades councils -- creates a pathway for community residents into union apprenticeship programs.
  • For ECC, attracting today's generation into construction jobs means reshaping the industry so it pays well, is safer and provides better job security and support.

    In more dramatic terms, using energy efficiency to stem global climate change demands a concerted effort to attract many of today's workers to replace the aging construction workforce.

    Connecting People to Work: Workforce Intermediaries and Sector Strategies edited by Maureen Conway, vice president, Aspen Institute, and Robert P. Giloth, vice president, Annie E. Casey Foundation, is available from Amazon and by special order from major book retailers. An electronic version of the book is available soon from major ebook retailers.