Green jobs grads still hopeful, despite stagnant economy
on November 9, 2009
When Barack Obama won the presidential election a year ago, he promised “a new chapter” in U.S. environmental leadership, vowing to steer the country out of its economic crisis by generating five million new green jobs – a promise he backed with $600 million toward green job training programs in his federal stimulus package.
The push to create these jobs and to train workers for green-collar careers (working in fields like green construction, waste management, wind and solar energy) found strong support in California, where Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger created his own green jobs training program in March. It was modeled after the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, long championed by Mayor Ron Dellums as a way for the city to battle its 17 percent unemployment rate.
“Oakland pioneered this idea,” Dellums said at the launch of Schwarzenegger’s statewide California Green Jobs Corps. Dellums said green jobs training embraces a simple idea: fighting poverty and pollution at the same time. Graduates of these training programs, he said, should be considered “astronauts of the green revolution.”
Which brings us to Tabari Morris: an intergalactic traveler with a green collar spacesuit.
OK, Morris is really just an intern. But as one of the 38 graduates of the first Oakland Green Jobs Corps this past June, he’s made use of civic support and community resources to find a job in clean energy.
Morris, 34, holds an internship as an associate project manager for SunPower, one of the world’s leading solar panel manufacturers. He says he’s proud of his job, where among his duties he helps secure subcontractors for solar installation projects. “I’m making a difference, helping the world out and at the same time making people happy,” he said. “And it makes my daughters happy, so they can be proud of their dad.”
For Morris and many of his peers, green jobs training has become a bridge to a stable career and a brighter future. But while the program’s successes are great, many graduates are still struggling to find work, thanks to a stagnant economy and persistent barriers to employment that affect many of the neediest people in Oakland.
A Pathway out of Poverty
The Oakland Green Jobs Corps was envisioned as a training program that would provide “green pathways out of poverty” for low-income adults in Oakland. The design was led by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based nonprofit. The center enlisted West Oakland’s Cypress Mandela Training Center and Laney Community College to oversee the training process, and Growth Sector, a San Francisco workforce intermediary group, to help build bridges to the working world, and find resources from government, business, and community organizations. Together, the three groups oversee the path of the Corps members, from enrollment through graduation and job placement.
The City of Oakland provided the original funding necessary to start the project with a $250,000 grant, funds made available by a string of lawsuits that the state filed against Enron and other energy companies in the wake of the 2000-2001 California energy crisis. Companies charged with inflating energy prices during the crisis were forced to pay millions back to cities around the state, money to be earmarked for energy efficient projects.
Growth Sector later applied for and received an additional $500,000 grant from a state program called CalGRIP, designed to support initiatives that target youth at risk for gang activity. This new money let the program expand and recruit twenty additional trainees under the age of 24.
Now that money from Obama’s federal stimulus package is also beginning to flow, the Corps is set to expand even more dramatically, as new city projects create more construction and contracting work for Oakland businesses.
“Projects are getting off the ground because of the federal stimulus money,” said Caz Pereira, the director of Growth Sector. “There are resources there now that probably will never be there again.”
Growth Sector has been commissioned by the City to apply for one grant that would deliver $4 million of federal stimulus money to create green building projects and subsidies for employers who recruit graduates of the Corps. If the grant is awarded, it could allow the Corps to enroll 400 people per year in the training program, and would expand its ability to enlist industry partners to help create a high standard of training.
Students like Tabari Morris show that some graduates of the program can be job-ready by graduation day. In fact, Morris had to miss the Corps graduation ceremonies on June 22 — he was at the SunPower offices for his first day of work.
His training had taken eight months. For the first 16 weeks, Cypress and Laney put the Corps through basics — morning exercise, basic construction, and math and literacy classes; as well as fundamental life skills lessons like money management, job readiness, and chemical dependency support. All graduates had to pass regular drug tests to prepare them for jobs in which they are often required.
“Cypress doesn’t mess around,” Morris said. “They make you job ready, and teach you how to keep a job.”
Trainees were put into a heavy routine of class work, where they learned the kind of “soft skills” that are necessary to work in a professional environment, yet often are undeveloped among youth in impoverished neighborhoods. Pereira said literacy was a key focus in the training program, which works to bring poorly educated adults up at least to a 9th or 10th grade reading level.
“This is an opportunity to really move people in the right direction, whether they get a green job or a non-green job,” Pereira said.
Art Shank, the executive director of Cypress Mandela, agreed. “Any time you take inner-city youth and you take them out of the element of what they’re used to doing, integrate a standard of training, you’re moving them up to economic stability and sustainability – which is something they didn’t have before,” Shank said. “Now they can afford health care, to buy a car and a house, things they previously didn’t have an opportunity to do. Now you take someone who was doing negative things in a community, whether it’s drug sales or doing blight and graffiti, now they’re doing something positive, cleaning up their community. You’re reducing poverty and fighting crime at the same time.”
After the basics at Cypress, the Corps began a 12-week advanced training program that focused on technical skills in green construction, energy efficiency, solar installation and electrical work. All graduates earned college credit from Laney that they can use toward a future degree. They also gained construction and hazardous waste certifications, which Morris said helped fast-track his career.
“With the skills I have now, I can take that on to a job. I have something to offer,” Morris said. “It’s not hard to find a job when you have the skills and can apply them.”
Morris said that his age and experience helped set him apart from his peers and allowed him to find employment quickly at SunPower. At 34, he had years of work experience under his belt, while many of the younger Corps members had dropped out or recently graduated from high school. Morris said that his networking skills were another major advantage.
“I’m a people person, and I’m completely confident in myself,” he said. “A lot of doors were open to me because of the people I know,”
But not everyone had the same experience.
Oakland’s Ongoing Story: Unemployment and Inequality
Morris’ immediate success was, in many ways, an exception to the rule. He was one of only four of his 38 classmates to have secured a job by the June 22 graduation day. He is still the only graduate to have secured a job in the solar industry.
About one third of the graduates have yet to find a green job at all.
Growth Sector Director Pereira said the recession has hurt employment outcomes, especially at solar companies whose stock value and selling prices have plummeted since the recession set in.
“The biggest challenge so far has been solar,” Pereira said.
He said most solar consumers rely on credit to finance solar panels, meaning that the fall of financial institutions in the past year, and the consequent freezing of credit, have stunted new solar installations. Adding to the problem is the sheer number of people in the marketplace. “One of our employers, a solar company, was hiring for ten positions and had 600 applications,” he said. “The competition is fierce.”
“Jobs are scarce,” said Erika Artis, a 20-year-old Corps graduate who has not been able to find a green job. She cited her relative youth and inexperience as factors that have limited her job hunt. But Artis, who graduated from high school in 2007 and began the Corps six weeks after having her first child, said she is glad she went through the Corps experience, and that she’s confident that things will turn around as the economy recovers. “The green field is a big plus,” Artis said. “That’s where jobs are opening up.”
Yet whether in recession or recovery, securing employment for underprivileged inner-city youth is a challenge that transcends economics, one that requires looking at nearly all aspects of society, from education to law enforcement.
“It’s an ongoing story that’s larger than just the economy,” said Tracey Weaver, Executive Director of Urban University, a workforce development agency that helps Corps graduates overcome employment barriers. As the case manager for young Corps members like Artis, Weaver confronts the institutional disadvantages of urban youth–such as low literacy, learning disabilities, and a lack of professional work experience– every day.
“We have to be real,” Weaver said. “We’re talking about helping people change their lives in a very short period of time. That’s a lot of work … the barriers aren’t going to go away overnight.”
Further compounding the challenge is the fact that at least half of the people recruited by and enrolled in the Corps have criminal records.
“People who have criminal backgrounds are at a disadvantage, because they still face stereotypes when trying to get employed,” Weaver said. “But the problem is, these young men needed income early in their lives, and they come from neighborhoods where selling drugs is very commonplace and they participated in that, or were exposed to gang activity. That’s a reality.”
It’s also a substantial barrier for them now, she said. “How do you place individuals from under-resourced communities and help them be competitive, help them gain these foundational needs that they really need to be successful at work?” Weaver said. That’s the idea of the green jobs program: to teach life skills like literacy along with useful job training to give disadvantaged youth something to work with.
“That program works,” Morris said. “People that don’t get many opportunities, didn’t have the money to go to college — now they have the opportunity to take these courses and get somewhere.”
Stepping Into the Sun
For Morris and many of his classmates, the long days and intensity of the program have paid off and have translated into a new career in an emerging field.
“SunPower has given me stability,” said Morris, who recently had his internship extended through the new year.
He’s also used the skills he learned from the Corps outside the workplace. “In our energy efficiency and energy auditing class, we were looking at the reasons why houses lost so much heat, and how those PG&E bills get so high,” Morris said. “I thought, ‘I want to use this stuff all the time!’ I immediately went home and weatherized my house — fixed the windows and the doors, and changed the stripping on the refrigerator.”
He said the change immediately brought down his next heating bill, which made his mother – who at the time was also his housemate – very happy. Morris moved back to San Francisco’s Mission District last year to be close to his mom, who had been experiencing health problems. The move came after years of being far from home, where he held down jobs ranging from retail to recycling. Most recently, Morris had been doing janitorial work in Fresno, working his way up to a supervising role before he decided to move back home. Before long he found himself at Cypress Mandela, ready to begin his green jobs training.
When the first of his two daughters — now twelve — was born, Morris was 22 and working at Ben and Jerry’s. His daughters now live with their mom in Fairfield (she and Morris are separated). Due to the distance and irregular hours of his previous jobs, Morris was unable to see them as much as he would have liked. But now that he has a job with a steady paycheck and regular working hours, that’s changed.
Last month, Morris moved out of his mom’s place and got his own one-bedroom apartment in the East Bay. “It’s halfway between San Francisco and Fairfield — close to my mom and close to my kids,” he said. He’s able to see his daughters now almost every weekend.
Morris said seeing his family more is just one of the many positive changes that the Oakland Green Jobs Corps has brought to his life. The program helped him realize his goals and opened up the door to a green-collar career. Walking through it was his own responsibility.
“Once I got to the interview, it was all me.” Morris said.
In the end, Morris said, it’s up to individuals to decide how hard they’re willing to work for success. He sees the Corps not as a handout for the poor, but as a leg up for those who are ready to learn new skills and get to work.
“I don’t look at it as a pity program,” he said. “I look at it as a school.”
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