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May 27, 2008

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

PHOTOS
BY MARTYPEARL.COM

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.

Contact
the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com