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Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

Posted: December 3, 2009 12:45 PM

The American Worker: An Endangered Species

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To the iconic image of a polar bear struggling onto a crumbling ice floe, or that of a condor chick peering from its man-made nest, we must add another image: that of an American worker at his trade. Endangered species are a concern to all environmentalists, and the plight of the worker should be no different.
 
This is not hyperbole. The unemployment rate continues to climb, surging into double digits with no discernible impact on its speed.  At 10.2 percent, the official unemployment rate is at its highest point in more than a quarter of a century.  And a broader look - one that includes discouraged workers and part-time workers seeking full-time positions - puts unemployment and underemployment at 17.5 percent.
 
Meanwhile, the bedrock of our nation's employment, manufacturing, moves in the opposite direction. The stock image of a manufacturing worker is no longer that of a blue collar in Skokie; it is of an assembly line in Tianjin.  Chinese unemployment is under 5 percent.  Its manufacturing is growing at its fastest rate in five years, and is leading Asia out of this global recession.
 
American workers, and by extension, American families, are in a fight for survival - one that requires as much of us as does the fight to protect any endangered species. What is needed is for government, business, and concerned citizens to work together to ensure that a critical part of the ecosystem is saved.
 
We must build new economic sectors that replace the stability once provided by manufacturing.  No sectors offer as much promise as do those of green manufacturing and renewable energy.
 
Where once we focused on a global arms race, we must now recognize that we are in a race for energy independence, as other countries strive to build this sector - at our expense. But energy independence offers value beyond the geopolitical. It offers the prospect of long-term, quality employment. "Green Prosperity," a report from Green For All, the Political Economy Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, shows that clean-energy investment creates roughly three to four times as many jobs as the same level of investment in fossil fuel industries.  The report estimates that investing $150 billion in clean energy -- both public and private investment -- will create a net gain of 1.7 million jobs.
 
We must build industries that do what the strongest industries of the last century did:  provide a way for every person to ascend into the middle class, offering a better life for their children than they had growing up. We must build industries that nurture the primary engine of employment and economic production: small businesses. We need to build industries to be strong now, but that last far into the future.  We need to avoid the self-destructive mistakes of the past by incorporating environmental stewardship and restoration into the foundation of these industries. 
 
No industries meet these concerns as completely as those of green manufacturing and renewable energy.  And they go a step further. These industries necessitate domestic production.  We cannot continue as an import economy predicated on the idea that other countries can be producers while we simply remain consumers. Driving innovation in these two sectors will assure that we're engaged in the global economy in a way that benefits the country and our families.
 
There is an opportunity at hand to begin this transition: the President's Job Summit. This summit must be a key moment in saving the American worker from extinction - a chance for the country to commit to new public and private investment. It's an opportunity for the government to do what it does best: give the private sector and individual Americans the tools and support they need for this transition to succeed.
 
The Summit should emphasize new investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Such an investment means jobs. Manufacturing, installing and maintaining renewable energy sources using clean, sustainable methods requires more work (and workers) than extracting energy sources from the earth and burning them. In the same way, making a building more energy efficient requires exponentially more work (and workers) than letting it waste energy. Including innovative financing tools and supporting the creation of secondary markets will create a capital pool that multiplies the impacts and is robust enough to achieve large-scale, energy-efficiency outcomes.
 
We must go further than just creating jobs. By including quality and access standards, we can ensure that these jobs meet the goal of replacing quality employment with quality employment. By including green workforce development resources, we ensure that workers are prepared to excel in the jobs of tomorrow. By educating Americans about energy-efficiency services that will protect their employment opportunities and pocketbooks, we can add demand for services, increasing the marketplace. Few will disagree that such an increase is needed.
 
We must all ─ environmentalists, elected officials, business leaders ─ come to the aid of an endangered species that shares our natural habitat. This moment is one in which we'll define the future of America's role within the global economy, as well as the shape of our culture. Acting together, acting responsibly and acting immediately, we can assure that the American worker and American families are able to thrive un-endangered for the entire 21st century.