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Who Will Be Left Behind By the Green Job Boom?

Living Cities-a collaboration of 21 of the world's biggest foundations and financial institutions-is leading the charge to ensure low-income workers aren't counted out of the green job boom. It's hero's work, but it's not going to be easy.

If President Obama's projections are accurate, the classifieds could soon be flooded with a glut of green-job listings. "Solar panel engineer needed!" "Crumbling-building retrofitter wanted!" It's the great green hope, backed by the stimulus plan: a promise that our conversion to energy efficiency will spark 2.5 million new jobs and lift the country out of a recession. With millions recently out of work, and entire industries expected to collapse within the coming years, there's no shortage of workers to fill the spots. But throw in high school graduates, and those who didn't have skilled-labor jobs to begin with, and the job-to-jobless ratio doesn't look terribly promising, especially for low-income workers.One organization, however, hopes to flip those odds. Living Cities is a public-private-philanthropic collaboration that focuses on urban solutions that also bring low-income people out of the economic and social fringes, and they are now focusing their efforts on the green job boom.According to Ben Hecht, the CEO and president of Living Cities, their founding principle is to invest in long-term solutions for cities that are sustainable not just for buildings and energy companies, but also for low-income workers. And since they were already helping cities retrofit their infrastructure, it made sense to also find a way to ensure that those job contracts didn't get passed out in back-room deals. Because, says Hecht, "if you don't intentionally build in ways of benefiting low-income people then-surprise-they're not benefiting."There are encouraging signs from Washington, however. President Obama has created a senior policy making position to focus on green jobs, and has appointed Van Jones, an activist and lawyer whose Green for All organization Hecht has worked closely with over the years. "I could not have been more excited about the administration choosing a special focus on green jobs," says Hecht. "The selection of Van Jones was extraordinary as a signal that the green economy has to benefit all people especially those of limited income and of color."
"If you don't intentionally build in ways of benefiting low-income people then-surprise-they're not benefiting." -Ben Hecht, CEO Living Cities
And at the end of the month, at the behest of the Obama administration, Living Cities is hosting a boot camp of sorts called the Green Stimulus Camp, at Harvard University, where leaders from 15 cities will come together to set agendas and strategies to push these efforts forward."The camp gives us an opportunity to take a very current issue-building energy efficiency, climate change-and refocus it to also talk about creating a scaled system," says Hecht. "That system will create a lot of jobs that could also benefit low-income people-not to mention creating energy efficiency which will lower their costs and put more money in their pockets."But it's not going to be easy. Rebuilding cities and stimulating the economy while benefiting the poor has never really been done-at least not in a way that was sustainable in the long-term. And with 4.3 people unemployed for every current job opening, ensuring some of those jobs go to people who are historically least likely to get them is a tall order. Still, with the Obama administration funneling $70 billion into the energy economy-some of which could help fund as many as 5 million green jobs by 2025-the opportunity is ripe for the work Living Cities has been at for 15 years.
With 4.3 people unemployed for every current job opening, ensuring some of those jobs go to people who are historically least likely to get them is a tall order.
Based in Harlem, New York, with another office in Washington, D.C., Living Cities was founded in 1991 with the goal to help knit together various actors in major cities, while also encouraging them to focus on equitable solutions. With members from J.P. Morgan, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Deutsche Bank, the Ford Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to name only a few, Living Cities has invested more than $543 million in 23 cities, leveraging that investment at a ratio of 29 to 1. In 15 years, Living Cities has created more than $15 billion worth of assets, all of which have directly helped low-income people. That's meant funding schools and daycare programs, job outreach, and training efforts-the cradle-to-career approach.That is what they're working on in Cincinnati. "In Cincinnati there is an extraordinary mix of people, from Proctor & Gamble, the University of Cincinnati, to the public and nonprofit sectors saying ‘We're going to re-engineer the city from cradle to career,'" says Hecht. But how do these groups accomplish such a feat? They came up with specific, measurable goals and 54 indicators-a report card, essentially-to assess how well the efforts are working, and to hold all the players accountable.So far, it seems to be working fairly well. At a recent May meeting the report card showed significant improvement in over 30 of the 54 areas, and funding for their efforts has reached the million-dollar mark. As for the less-thriving parts of the initiative, the meeting allowed all the actors to come up with ways of accelerating the speed of improvement, so that the success rate can go up.Living Cities is acutely sensitive to the particular needs of different cities, however-what works in a depopulating city like Cleveland won't necessarily make sense in the greater metropolitan area of New York-and blanketed national solutions are far from what Hecht and his team are after. Still, the innovative ways in which Chicago, as one example, is retrofitting city buildings, could be replicated in countless other cities that are not as far along in the transition to green jobs. Similarly, if Milwaukee has seen great progress in engaging an inclusive local labor force, there could be lessons there for other cities that have prioritized sustainable infrastructure but is leaving behind low-income workers.
Much of the green-job economy will be fueled not by entirely new sectors-which can be easier for excluded populations to break into-but rather traditional sectors with an additional "green" layer.
The catch is that much of the green-job economy will be fueled not by entirely new sectors-which can be easier for excluded populations to break into-but rather traditional sectors with an additional "green" layer of knowledge. A Rutgers University study released in February showed just that "while green jobs occupations will be found across all industries, and at all levels of education, the largest number of green jobs will be in occupations that require an apprenticeship, professional certificate, or one to two years of postsecondary education."This concerns Hecht. "There is an enormous need to generate an economic recovery, particularly in construction and renovation and building, and unemployment in those areas is very high in a number of cities. If we're not really explicit and focused that these jobs are wide open to low-income people, and that there is the necessary training, certification and apprenticeship for these people to make that happen, we will miss that opportunity to make sure that the economic recovery and the green job economy is on that is equitable and makes opportunity for everyone."The boot camp, then, is an opportunity for cities to commit to specific goals of outreach and inclusion. "The biggest objective," says Stockton Williams, Director of Green Initiatives at Living Cities, "is to set a blueprint for action that's not permanent, but one that lives and evolves and is informed by real experience and gets richer over time."Another challenge is ensuring that once the glut of recent money dries up, the jobs don't dry up too. And while Living Cities is optimistic about the administration's commitment to an equitable green-job workforce, "we're not putting all our eggs in this basket," says Hecht. "We were on this road before the Recovery Act, because we believe the models needed to be built, regardless of that stimulus money."Williams agrees. "The rise of the green job issue has very much captured the imagination of the policymakers and the general public but now there is a growing demand to actually show what these jobs actually are, and how they can be created, and who will benefit from them," says Williams. "If we don't do that quickly, and at scale, there is a real risk that the momentum to create a green economy that includes low-income people, that the moment will be lost."For more information about the Green Stimulus Camp, which is being held May 30-June 2 at Harvard University, visit

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