The Force of New Green: How cities are turning on to the green-collar economy, and where Louisville sits on the continuum

May 28, 2008 at 1:34 am


Over in Prospect, on Upper River Road where the modest homes still sit on generous plots of land, a Louisville Water Company pumping station is mostly quiet. Stillness reigns out front, and in the back, serenaded by a few birds and the low hum of pumping machinery, two young men and their crew leader are bent over hand tillers and rakes, scraping up Bermuda grass and other weeds.

It’s hard to imagine that these two members of YouthBuild Louisville, a local chapter of the national job training nonprofit, are at the vanguard of what some say is a drastic and inevitable change in this country, and perhaps in this community. They’re clearing plots on which to test growth rates of native grasses. In so doing, they’ll help the water company and neighboring households determine which grasses need the least mowing, thereby reducing air pollution and fuel use. They’re also demonstrating a new catchphrase: green-collar jobs.

It’s a term that became part of the presidential campaign lexicon this year, after President Bush authorized $125 million for green-job-training programs in December. The Washington, D.C.-based Apollo Alliance, formed in 2004 to promote “clean energy policy,” offers astounding projections for jobs directly tied to environmental protection and improvement, especially in urban areas. Communications Director Keith Schneider says that in the next 10 years, 932,000 jobs will be based on energy diversity; 900,000 in future industries (hybrid cars, energy efficient appliances); 679,000 in infrastructure investment; and 800,000 in green buildings.

Schneider says hard numbers are thus far difficult to come by, but the greening of the economy will create a range of lasting jobs. Annually, 75 percent of what you see has either just been built or renovated, and building and maintaining that will require new skill sets in an eco-conscious economy. He says just how many new jobs there will be depends a great deal on what governments — especially in cities — do in the meantime. The Apollo Alliance and Green For All, the main organization behind the green-collar jobs movement, stress the importance of fitting their goals into a city’s existing economic plans.

Green-collar jobs are fine with Bruce Traughber, director of economic development for Louisville Metro government, but so are a host of other options.

Traughber is understandably skeptical of the term “green-collar jobs,” an amorphous phrase that defies definition every time it’s co-opted by another corporation, candidate or concerned grassroots group. It’s a handy term that, like “green” itself, can be dressed up in whatever clothing is most convenient or apparent to the user. Pick up a copy of BusinessWeek, for example, and green-collar jobs are simply white-collar jobs in a greener context. (A January issue gives an example of a burnt-out career adviser breaking away from her firm to become an independent “environmental career consultant.”) Even Green for All, struggling to pin down the term and hold it up as a beacon for change, points to instances where, say, auto mechanics would shift from working on combustible engines to electric ones.

But, more clearly a child of the justice movement than the environmental, green-collar is more than that, the groups say. A truly green job, they say, helps the poor and other disenfranchised groups participate in the next big economic revolution, unlike industrial and technological booms of the past century that left them behind. And green jobs are skilled jobs, though not always requiring a costly four-year degree. They offer a living wage and opportunities for advancement. They strengthen communities, tend to be local and, yes, directly help protect or improve the environment.

YouthBuild’s environmental program, E-Corps, is a prime example of new and established programs around the country trying to meet those goals. Michael Jackson, a 19-year-old student of the program, says it has opened his eyes to new opportunities. If it weren’t for YouthBuild, he says he’d be doing “probably nothing, wasting time” like many of his peers. Those who aren’t incarcerated, he says, are working fast-food joints.

A vague interest in yard work led him to choose E-Corps over the group’s construction program. “The stuff I’ve learned in E-Corps, that’s stuff you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life,” Jackson says.

It’s not just design and horticultural skills that open doors for people like Jackson. He’s also getting major face time with business, government and environmental leaders spearheading the projects that will need well-trained green workers like him.

Given this description of green jobs as a tool for curing economic and environmental ills, Traughber remains somewhat incredulous.

“I’m not sure that’s a useful term,” Traughber says. Communities everywhere, he says, are looking first and foremost for growth industries to court or keep, for the time being, and many of those might even be environmentally detrimental. At the same time, he notes that many will also be greener.

“Call it what you want. We’re all looking for the best and the brightest and the ones that are going to be around the longest. And I would put my money on those that are doing energy efficient, green practices.

“There are winners and losers in this economy, and so the question is, what jobs are displaced?” asks Traughber.

Good question. Economic shifts of any sort aren’t exactly tantamount to job creation. With every big boom, some people end up the way Jackson and his friends start off, flipping hamburgers until they get retrained. People who’ve lost manufacturing jobs in the last several decades weren’t ready to suddenly become lab technicians, Traughber points out.

“Traditionally this would be one of the things we’ve looked to the federal government for,” he says.

It is most certain that any systemic change, as opposed to a person here and there redefining her job, will have to be motivated by government. That’s probably not going to happen any time soon in Louisville.

“It’s not been discussed as a strategy,” says Traughber. “In communities where that’s being talked about, I guarantee that they’re communities that have really high energy costs.”

Traughber says that in 20 years working in local government, he’s never seen a city so committed to setting a good environmental example for its residents. Metro’s numerous green efforts have been focused on housekeeping issues that improve the way the city and citizens conduct themselves, but won’t necessarily create jobs or facilitate a strong economic shift. Traughber says the city is also reaching out to developers through the Partnership for a Green City, educating them on the favorable profit margin on building green.

“Are those really green-collar jobs? Well, they’re becoming greener,” he says.

Energy use is being reduced in public buildings, and green roofs are on the horizon, but supply-side mandates that would require green building and manufacturing practices are not, so far.

Although Traughber recognizes that many profitable future companies will be green on some level, the city’s economic development is focused elsewhere, on the healthcare industry and traditional manufacturing, especially those companies that would need UPS to ship products by truck or air. The state of Kentucky has an incentive program for companies that manufacture unique products with positive environmental impact, but the city has yet to lure any companies with that particular carrot.

At the same time, Lynn Rippy, executive director of YouthBuild, believes job opportunities for E-Corps students are ripe, and she is probably right. She points to an aging workforce, along with the city’s growing investment in green space. Even if the word from on high is one of unhurried optimism regarding green-collar jobs, some Metro departments and employees are taking it upon themselves to throw work to E-Corps as they clean house: E-Corps has gotten contracts through Brightside to plant hundreds of trees that need maintenance for the rest of their lives. They’ve also nabbed work building rain barrels for the Metropolitan Sewer District, which has saved money for the agency as it tries to supply the barrels to citizens as a way of helping reduce runoff into local waterways.

Youthbuild, which receives federal funds from the Department of Labor, currently has more slots on the construction side, but hopes to fund more E-Corps positions soon. In the meantime, those involved on the construction side are also given opportunities to do a little green work, such as the garden and grass-testing project at the Louisville Water Company. The organization is trying to accomplish on a relatively microscopic scale what the city is open to, someday, and what the country is lumbering toward at an unpredictable pace.

Why is it that anyone would think that those kinds of companies that are doing green business would have any different objective — which is to make a buck — than anybody else?” Traughber asks.

Another good question. The notion that a green economy would be inherently altruistic deserves skepticism. Green-collar-ites, however, rarely mention philanthropy when they promote jobs. They talk supply, demand, capital investment and skill — the language of business. Keith Schneider of the Apollo Alliance goes even further, saying that cities’ growth depends on a move toward a green economy.

“Those cities that have pursued transit, energy efficient space, green and open space, reaching out to all levels of society, that purse a smart growth downtown development strategy, not sprawl, are also the most prosperous places in the country,” he says, naming several of the country’s largest cities, and also Salt Lake City, Denver and Boise, Idaho. “The places that aren’t pursuing this agenda are struggling.”

He’s says it’s not just a matter of cities, especially large ones, being areas of concentrated wealth. Several were in decline or worse 30 years ago, and those that pulled themselves out shared several of the same strategies, including getting “cleaner and greener.” For instance, they looked at natural systems as allies in their work to be competitive, such as New York’s decision to address water quality issues by spending on watershed rather than filtration system improvements. Or they moved the development money from car-centered to public transit-centered, as in Denver, where development grows around transit stops. He says resurgences in St. Louis and Chicago can also be credited to city mandates and spending big on green.

Anyone in Louisville who wants to take a stab at getting in on the game early can take notes from others around the country who’ve found creative ways to kick-start their local government into changing its M.O. A Beverly Hills nonprofit, TreePeople, recently made money for itself and its city by using trees and innovative ecosystem mimicry for effective storm water filtration. The group convinced the city to use its methods rather than spend millions raising walls to control flooding and treat increasing run-off.

The Milwaukee Energy Efficiency (Me2) collaboration among public and private entities last summer won a $500,000 contract from the city to sell energy-saving retrofits to homeowners and renters, who can then pay for the improvements through their home utility bills. A million dollars in retrofits on this venture created 14 onsite jobs staffed by local people, and it is estimated that service to the whole city will create 3,200 jobs — in a city slightly smaller than Louisville.

In an old city like ours, growth will most certainly include such retrofitting. The nonprofit Project Warm, sometimes partnering with LG&E, already spends about $80,000 annually to improve the energy efficiency of homes with various strategies, none of which include alternative technologies like solar power. Nor does that dollar figure include volunteer training and staff time for making those improvements. Were energy efficiency to become a law rather than a luxury, the business potential could skyrocket.

Tomorrow is the first day of class for students in the E-Corps program, now one year old. Like Jackson before them, the new cadre will learn, among other basic job and study skills, green work. They’ll plant trees to help mitigate the warming effects of Jefferson County Public Schools’ massive collection of paved surfaces, which is bigger than any other entity in the city. They’ll build trails at Jefferson Memorial Forest and Waverly Park right alongside Metro employees. All the while, they’ll be making money. With an annual class of up to 35 students, there’s a good chance that those who choose to pursue green-collar jobs in this city will find them.

But just how many of these organizations Louisville can support is a matter of time, and of leadership. A single, small green-jobs-training program in a metropolitan area of more than 700,000 people cannot usher in swift economic change the way government policy can. Just look at how quickly and efficiently we moved to digital television, a mandate made by the strokes of a few pens, and at the behest of a few groups.

A move toward a national green-collar economy, says Schneider of the Apollo Alliance, is going to take an uprising of people who want to change directions, concerted collaborative policy-making at federal and state levels, and courage among the population to be entrepreneurial and nimble. And that’s already happening at the metropolitan level all over the country.

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