More Than Just a Summer Job
Pazhae Horace has a summer job with California Youth Energy Services, or CYES. It’s a program that hires youth aged 15-22 to do free “green house calls” in their communities. They go into people’s homes to evaluate energy and water efficiency, and then help install things like water-saving shower heads, or compact fluorescent light bulbs. Horace is 22, and this is her third summer working for the CYES site in Berkeley and Emeryville. She says that, at first, she was worried about talking to strangers, but now she really likes meeting new people, and helping them become more green.
Jodi Pincus is executive director of Rising Sun Energy Center, the non-profit which runs the CYES summer program, along with other green job training for youth and adults. She says CYES gives youth more than just employment. “You know, they're not getting a job at Starbucks," she says, "where they could learn equally valuable soft skills or professionalism. But it's not as meaningful in the sense of their contribution to the environment or to their community.”
Rising Sun has been doing the CYES program for 14 summers now, long before the current green jobs trend. This partnership with PG&E and local city governments has grown from a pilot program of 15 youth serving 300 homes in Berkeley, to about 100 youth going into 3000 homes in 10 Bay Area cities. Pincus says one key to Rising Sun’s longevity has been its so-called “triple bottom line" of people, planet and prosperity.
What that means in practice is giving young people -- especially low-income and at-risk youth -- job skills and paid employment. At the same time, they’re learning about climate change and sustainability.
“We’re preparing them for any job that they will have in their future, and ideally, they will have a job in the green economy,” Pincus says.
The Green Economy
Early in the Obama administration, the “green economy” was getting a lot of attention. The President’s massive 2009 economic stimulus plan included $500 million for job training in the emerging clean energy market. $150 million of that was supposed to go to low-income communities, through a program called Pathways out of Poverty.
People like former Oakland resident Van Jones -- for a time the White House’s ”Green Czar” -- predicted that the emerging green economy would lift low-income communities out of poverty. In response to the flood of federal funding, hundreds of “green job training” programs sprung up around the country. But according to a 2011 report by the Department of Labor, many couldn’t do what they promised -- get their graduates into steady, well-paying jobs.
Carol Zabin, a labor researcher at UC Berkeley, says there was a misconception that green jobs were somehow different from regular occupations. She says most green jobs -- at least the ones in the big sectors of energy efficiency and renewables -- are really construction jobs.
“So we made a pretty big mistake I think," she says, "in developing a lot of short-term green jobs training that weren't really related to these broader occupations.”
Broadening the Definition of a Green Job
Like Rising Sun in Berkeley, Solar Richmond started as more of a traditional job training model -- in this case for solar panel installation. It’s now grown into something more complex, with other types of training, and job opportunities built right into the organization. In the city of Richmond, unemployment is high --about 4% higher than the national average. And median family income is about 12% less than in California as a whole.
Akeele Carter, Solar Richmond’s program manager, says there just weren’t enough jobs out there for her solar installation graduates. So the organization branched out into marketing, advocacy, and outreach. And with the help of partners like the City of Richmond, they created paid positions -- within the organization -- that used those skills.
“Because some people aren’t meant to go on the roof,” she says. “Some people like to talk and advocate, and they like to go out and meet people, and they like to canvas, or even sales.”
According to the Solar Richmond website, they’ve created over 300 temporary jobs and 50 permanent ones since 2006. But Carter, who went through the program herself, says its about more than just job training.
“They have to be built up," she says, "to have that confidence and say, 'You know, I may be from a low-income community, but there’s so many skills that I have innately inside of me, and talent that I need to tap into. That’s going to allow me to get that job -- whether it’s green, blue or white.'”
22-year-old Lela Turner found Solar Richmond’s training program after a year of community college. She learned the carpentry and construction trade, but also skills like meditation, public speaking, and time management.
“I got my license, I got my first apartment, I got a lot of stuff,” Turner says. “I got my first car through Solar Richmond -- they helped me out with so much stuff.”
She now works as an administrative assistant in the main office. She’s also one of four people -- and the only woman -- chosen to start Solar Richmond’s new solar installation co-op, Pamoja Energy Solutions.
Labor researcher Carol Zabin says in-house initiatives like the co-op are a good response to the lack of green jobs. But most graduates of training programs go into entry-level jobs, which are often low-wage or short-term. Zabin says that placing people into better-paying jobs is a link that’s often broken.
“It's also the link that's most challenging for organizations that sit in the position of training at-risk youth and low income folks, and folks with barriers to employment,” she says. “Because they don't have any control over the whole system. And they don't have any control over how jobs get created.
And especially since the stimulus funding has run out, they don’t have the money to just create hundreds of jobs on their own. So, even though Lela Turner says she’s happy to be working at Solar Richmond, she actually has to have another job to make ends meet. “I also work at Ross as a retail associate,” she says. “I’m in the fitting room and I’m a cashier. So I work normally six days a week.”
Pazhae Horace is also glad to be where she’s at this summer, doing green house calls for Rising Sun. But she says she’s looking further down the road.
“I'm planning on going back to school for like business and communications, so that I can get a degree, further my career that way,” she says. “And maybe stay in this nonprofit, or stay in the green field.”
The "green field” may not have the same luster it did a few years ago. But for these young people just entering the workforce, it’s still a good place to start.
This story originally aired on Crosscurrents in September 2013.
Find more information about youth opportunities in green jobs at the links below: