Green may be the new black for African Americans seeking jobs during a downturn that has hit our community harder than other groups.
Mention green jobs—ones that come from industries relating to renewable and clean energy, as well as energy conservation and other methods to improve the environment—and images of solar panels and wind turbines may come to mind. Not surprisingly, many of us struggle to relate to such images because they are not a part of our daily lives. Few people think of welders, electrical installers and bus drivers as part of the green jobs movement.
But indeed, they are.
Green-collar workers retrofit buildings to make them more efficient, install efficient heating and cooling windows and systems, repair hybrid cars, recycle electronic materials, plant trees and much more. Many jobs in emerging green sectors such as green manufacturing, wind power and public transportation require "blue-collar" skilled labor.
"One of the hot 'green jobs' areas at the moment is weatherization," said Anca Novacovici, founder of Eco-Coach, an environmental sustainability advisory firm based in Washington, D.C.
"This has been one of the focuses of the stimulus package, and many urban areas have started training programs on this. Another has been energy auditing, focused mainly on the residential sector," said Novacovici.
The pay range for energy audits can range from $200 to $500 per audit, while weatherization wages depend on where you live, she said.
Zach Rose, founder of Green Education Services, a New York-based company selling green jobs training, said the most popular emerging green jobs include:
LEED (leadership in energy and environmental design) project administrators and construction superintendents
Home and commercial energy auditors
Solar installation contractors
Renewable energy sales associates
Sustainable furniture sales representatives
Green design instructors
Eco/green cleaning professionals
Energy-efficiency retrofitting (electricians, roofers and installation workers)
Public transportation (engineers, rail track layers and engine assemblers
Wind power (iron and steelworkers, machinists, and construction equipment operators)
Green manufacturing (metal workers, assembler, tool and dye makers)
Waste and recycling (truck drivers, sorters, machine operators)
Another less-discussed green job is urban farming, said Beth Waitkus, director of the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison in Marin City, Calif., where inmates train to pursue urban agriculture jobs.
"We need to include the idea of providing healthy and sustainable jobs in urban farming as people can help regenerate their communities at a basic level," she said.
Green jobs offer many opportunities, said MaryAnne Howland, president and CEO of Ibis Communications, an advertising agency that specializes in diversity communications and multicultural marketing.
"What is unique about green jobs is that many are local and that opens the door for more opportunities for African Americans. A prime example is the Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program that subsidizes the cost of home audits for homeowners and then provides additional financial support for diagnosed home repair needs. Those audits and the contracted services that result provide jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in local communities," said Howland, vice-chair of Social Venture Network, a network of socially responsible business leaders.
Companies, many located in urban areas, are hiring formerly traditional sector professionals—many of whom had been laid off due to a poor economy—to work in their sustainability or green silos of business, she said.
The green revolution can produce millions of jobs. But some green job advocates express concern that people of color and those with barriers to employment may miss opportunities.
Some cities, such as Washington, D.C., are making a concerted effort to train African Americans for green jobs. CarbonfreeDC, an organization working to lower carbon emissions in the District, has provided training on homes in underserved communities.
The District's mayor, Adrian Fenty, last month committed to partnering with Washington Interfaith Network, a nonpartisan organization addressing community issues, "to create up to 700 jobs over four years by weatherizing 2,000 to 4,000 houses in four wards, which are underserved communities," said Novacovivi.
Providing a pathway out of poverty through eco-friendly jobs will only happen if those who are so often left out and left behind—low-income people and communities of color—have a voice and a presence in this movement and in the national debate, said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, CEO of Green For All.
To help provide equal access to the new opportunities of the green economy, organizations such as Green For All advocate for policies that improve job training and expand entrepreneurial opportunities for people from disadvantaged communities.
Helping people with barriers to employment work in the green sector is a goal of John Shegerian, CEO and founder of Electronic Recyclers International, one of the largest electronic waste recyclers in the country. With locations in seven states including California, Massachusetts, Indiana and Texas, Shegerian hires a sizable number of individuals—up to 30 percent of the company's workforce—who have a history of incarceration, homelessness, welfare and substance abuse.
Now they are part of a sector unheard of five years ago, he said. Recycling electronic waste is a growing business as everyone wants the latest technology. Some employees started out sweeping the floor, others become managers at the company, which disposes of 170 million pounds of waste annually. "We want to inspire others to jump in and be part of the [green] economy so we can reinvent the economy and get everyone a part of the American Dream," Shegerian said.
Robin Farmer has more than 20 years of award-winning expertise in news, education, feature and narrative reporting and writing.