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Green Collar Economy For Beginners

Our country is facing serious times. Fires, floods, foreclosures, and now a massive Wall Street financial bailout are the latest signs that we are caught in twin crises: economic downturn and environmental devastation.

Crisis No. 1: Radical Socioeconomic Inequality
The country has long been deep in the throes of a socioeconomic crisis, one characterized by contracting economic opportunity for working people, growing disparities between the races, and the hording of immense wealth and privileges at the very top of our society.

These features are getting worse, not better.

Crisis No. 2: Rampant Environmental Destruction
It is no longer a question of whether or not climate change is happening; it is a matter of how soon -- and how hard -- it will hit. When it comes to the looming climate crisis, everything is a question of degrees.

By burning fossil fuels to meet our ravenous hunger for power in our homes, factories and means of transportation, humanity adds about seven billion tons of carbon (26 billion tons of carbon dioxide) to the atmosphere every year. Meanwhile, we keep chopping down trees; those trees are the lungs of the planet, pulling carbon out of the air and breathing out oxygen. Therefore, clear-cutting whole continents undermines the earth's overall ability to soak up the carbon dioxide. In effect, we are running the carbon faucets at full blast while we plug up the carbon sinks. As a result, our carbon cup runneth over.

The good news: There’s a solution.

Solution: Green-collar jobs in a green-collar economy.

In the green-economy solution, working-class people are motivated to take on green-collar jobs and start green businesses. This is the quadrant of "work, wealth and health" for people of more modest means. Here, former brownfields, depressed urban areas and hard-hit rural towns blossom as eco-industrial parks, green enterprise zones and eco-villages. Farmers' markets, community co-ops and mobile markets get fresh, organic produce to the people who can't afford to shop at health-food stores.

What kinds of jobs are these?

So who will do the hard and noble work of actually building the green economy? The answer: millions of ordinary people, many of whom do not have good jobs right now. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, the major barriers to a more rapid adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency are not financial, legal, technical, or ideological. One big problem is simply that green employers can't find enough trained, green-collar workers to do all the jobs.

That is good news for people who are being thrown out of work in the present recession. That is good news for people in urban and rural communities who are suffering from chronic lack of work. That is good news for our veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. That is good news for people returning home from prison, looking for a second chance. And those opportunities for work and wealth creation can be available to all of them -- starting right now. Not 20 years from now. Today.

Let's be clear -- the main piece of technology in the green economy is a caulk gun. Hundreds of thousands of green-collar jobs will be weatherizing and energy-retrofitting every building in the United States. Buildings with leaky windows, ill-fitting doors, poor insulation, and old appliances can gobble up 30% more energy. That means owners are paying 30% more on their heating bills. And it often means that 30% more coal-fired carbon is going into the atmosphere. Drafty buildings create broke, chilly people -- and an overheated planet.

Another bit of high-tech green technology is the clipboard. That tool is used by energy auditors as they point out energy-saving opportunities to homeowners and renters. This job does not require much training and can be an early entry point into the booming world of energy consultation and efficiency. And one consultation can save an owner hundreds -- or even thousands -- of dollars annually.

Other green-collar workers can then follow-up with other tasks for building owners: wrapping hot-water heaters with blankets, blowing insulation, plugging holes, repairing cracks, hauling out old appliances, replacing old windows with the double-glazed kind, etc. Other pieces of green tech are ladders, wrenches, hammers, tool belts, and nonslip work boots -- those are the space-age gadgets used by solar-panel installers every day.

The point is this: When you think about the emerging green economy, don't think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard hat and lunch bucket, sleeves rolled up, going off to fix America. Think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines. Those images will represent the true face of a green-collar America.


A nonprofit in Baltimore called Second Chance launched its architectural salvage and deconstruction services in 2003. Over the next four years the company grew quickly, filling a 120,000-square foot warehouse space and engaging more than 50 employees -- three deconstruction crews and a retail store crew. The crews consist entirely of local low-income residents who are trained on the job. Second Chance’s founder, Mark Foster, explains, “Deconstruction is time-consuming and exacting. The architectural elements must be removed from the building without becoming damaged. Elements that are too large to remove intact must be removed in pieces to be reassembled later.”

Mark Foster established contracts with the City of Baltimore that call for workforce-development funds for training and first dibs on government buildings scheduled for takedown. Trainees, who are recruited through the city’s workforce-development programs, receive 16 weeks of training. The program covers a range of carpentry and craftsmanship skills such as sandblasting, painting and stained-glass and wood repair. Once the training is completed satisfactorily, the worker is guaranteed a permanent job with the company, making between $12 and $25 an hour, plus benefits.

Second Chance trainee Durrell Majette says, “As I ride down the streets now, I find myself looking at doors, the way the windows are built, the frames, stuff I used to never even notice. It’s like I have a new direction in new life. I feel like I’m part of something bigger.” Mark Foster is running trainings in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and hopes to open retail stores like Baltimore’s in both of those cities. “We are not just offering a good job, but employment in a growing company and sector of the economy. That’s a pathway to a career.”

Green collar jobs are the future. Let’s make sure we build it together.

by Van Jones, the author of The Green Collar Economy and also the founder and president of Green for All. An advocate for all things environmental, Jones is on a mission to bring greater environmental knowledge to the world, especially when it comes to the economy and jobs for the average Joe.

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