What It Really Takes to Create a Green Economy

One central challenge to building a green economy is that for many, the inner workings of a key pillar of that economy — the construction industry — are a mystery. Understanding construction helps us move beyond simply creating green “jobs,” which could be temporary or even dangerous, to building a new green economic sector that generates permanent construction careers.

Construction is one of the largest sectors of the U.S. economy, with a dollar value approaching $800 billion and more than 7.2 million workers. It brings together people from all different walks of life. For community members that the economic downturn has hit the hardest — low-income workers, minorities, women, those returning from the military or from prison — construction offers a chance at a middle-class career.

A growing piece of the construction industry is retrofitting buildings to increase energy efficiency. Launching a project to retrofit a building, like a library or school, requires diverse groups to collaborate. Community organizations prepare community members with writing, math and interview skills to enter apprenticeship programs. Construction unions provide rigorous training. Policymakers and project owners decide how many local or disadvantaged workers should be included in the workforce on any particular project. Environmental groups analyze the full supply chain to understand how to source the most environmentally friendly materials.

In construction, though creating new jobs is important, it can’t stop there. Construction workers typically move from one project to another during the course of a year and rarely stay with one employer for a long period of time. This means that a good construction job is not about placing people as quickly as possible on their first job site. A good job means access to lifelong training and services that consistently deploy workers to new job sites over the life of their careers.

Establishing a common understanding of how the construction industry creates good, career-path jobs would be a huge leap forward. A case in point is the difference between “basic weatherization” — retrofits that focus on superficial improvements, such as sealing air leaks and replacing appliances — and “deep green” energy efficiency. While the former tends to generate short-term, temporary work, the latter produces good, lasting construction careers.

Much federal green jobs funding has gone toward training for basic weatherization. Frequently, this means community members, many of whom are low income and must support their families while in training, attend unpaid or even costly training programs that last just a couple of months. Upon graduation they are placed into short-term jobs and often find themselves unemployed and with limited skills just a few months later.

Deep-green energy efficiency, on the other hand, begins with a building audit. It allows property owners to mix and match simple building improvements with more complex ones, such as upgrading air conditioning systems and installing responsive energy monitoring systems. This maximizes energy gains over the life of a building, and also creates more, and better, job opportunities. It means that rather than receiving training just to replace light bulbs, a worker can become an electrician and have a career far into the future.

Deep-green construction builds upon one of the best-kept U.S. secrets — registered apprenticeship programs. These programs allow workers to “earn while you learn,” their pay increasing in increments as they build skills through on-the-job and in-class training. Workers who graduate from registered apprenticeships can access lifelong job deployment to construction jobs and can also return throughout their careers to update their skills. On top of all this, registered apprenticeships are privately funded. Construction contractors and construction unions invest in these programs to build a competitive workforce.

The puzzle pieces are there to build a clean energy economy, but first we have to work together across different backgrounds to develop some common ground. Moving past green jobs to good green careers will create a ripple effect throughout our economy.