EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is being co-published with the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Barack Obama was running for president, he promised to spend $150 billion over the next decade on renewable energy technologies, an investment that would lead to 5 million new, high-paying jobs that could never be outsourced.
Once elected, Obama pushed through an economic stimulus plan that allocated $500 million to green job training efforts giving all Americans a shot at good jobs that benefit the environment.
But more than two years later, these green job-training initiatives have fallen far short of the hype. Out-of-work Americans are finding that special training isn’t always enough to get a good “green” job. Or that the jobs they do qualify for have lousy pay and may last only as long as the government subsidizes them.
Measuring the success of green job programs is difficult. The Labor Department has no reliable statistics on how many green jobs there are, or even a solid definition of just what a green job is. But people like Casey McDonald and his fiancée, Jade Mooneyhan, don’t need to see statistics to know that political promises do not amount to economic reality.
McDonald and Mooneyhan moved from Tennessee to California so they could attend a private, wind-power technician training program. Mooneyhan planned to complete the program while McDonald took care of their then 1-year-old son, Jaeden. Once she finished training and got a job, he would start the program.
The couple considered the $10,000 they saved for the trip as an investment in their future.
McDonald said he’s had a lot of jobs, but the pay usually maxes out at $20 to $25 per hour.
“I don’t want to be 55 and still working at $25 an hour,” he said. “We really, really wanted to secure something for us and our son, maybe in the future have a house that we can feel good about.”
McDonald, 30, lacks a high school diploma and had bounced from job to job. He moved with Mooneyhan from Jacksonville, Fla., to Nashville, Tenn., where Jaeden was born. For a year, they lived in Mooneyhan’s mother’s basement, saving every dime they could for the job training.
But life in Ontario, Calif., did not go as smoothly as they had hoped. Mooneyhan graduated from the one-month program, where tuition was $1,900, and started getting job interviews as an entry-level wind tech. They went well until employers asked about her training.
“We started to notice a really disturbing pattern forming,” McDonald wrote in an email recently. “Upon finding out she went to the accelerated program, they would cut the interview short and would tell her they would be contacting her. Of course, not one of the people who said that have replied back.”
Out of money, the couple moved to another location in California, and then to Colorado, staying with friends and family, pursuing a lead on a construction job for McDonald. The job didn’t pan out.
The family is now back in Florida. They live with Mooneyhan’s father-in-law, and McDonald works in the family's landscaping business. Mooneyhan has taken a job cleaning apartments to get them ready for leasing, and then goes to work to help McDonald with lawn care. “It’s not lack of motivation … if we just had a chance,” said McDonald. “I prove that every day. If I can make somebody stop and go ‘wow,” and it’s not even their yard, then I know I’ve done my job."
His frustation, he said, is that, “You’ve got two dedicated workers who can’t find jobs.”
In May 2009, the administration announced the launch of Pathways Out of Poverty, a $500 million grant program to support green job training tucked into the stimulus package.
"These Pathways Out of Poverty grants will help workers in disadvantaged communities gain access to the good, safe and prosperous jobs of the 21st century green economy," said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. "Green jobs present tremendous opportunities for people who have the core skills and competencies needed in such well paying and rapidly growing industries as energy efficiency and renewable energy."
How the rhetoric of green jobs will translate to reality is still being determined, said Sarah White, a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, an economic development think tank at the University of Wisconsin.
“When people throw around numbers, it comes across as gospel, but you have a lot of well-intentioned people inflating numbers, or just making up numbers,” White said. “Most of the real numbers you see are based on potential, so people get confused.”
There also is confusion about what form the jobs will take, making gathering accurate numbers a difficult task. In many cases, White, and others who analyze the green job market, said green jobs aren’t new at all, just old jobs that are claiming a new green focus.
The Martian theory
“It’s the Martian theory of jobs — there’s a spaceship full of new jobs that’s going to land,” White said. “No, actually, it looks like electricians, plumbers, accountants and lawyers. There are very few cases where people will train for a specific new job.”
Some green-job training programs, public and private, have been successful, but it’s not across the board. “What we’re seeing are pockets of really interesting activity that could point the way to something much bigger, but really, by and large, it’s still mostly boutique,” said Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, a consulting firm that specializes in workforce development. “It’s projects serving tens and hundreds, and not thousands or hundreds of thousands, which we’ll eventually need.”
It’s hard to train people well for an industry in its infancy, when the needs of employers are still emerging. Also still in development is a definition just what qualifies as a green job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have an official definition, and the working draft is decidedly vague.
“What makes it so challenging, is because it’s all so new, there’s kind of this moving goal post of standards,” Alssid said. “It just hasn’t really been clearly delineated what these jobs are, and what the standards for training are.”
But with political promises made, and money on the table for training through the stimulus, there was an eagerness to start training programs, even if nobody was sure what they were training for.
“One thing that happened was community and technical colleges and universities and non-profits wanted a piece of this,” White said. “So you have hundreds and hundreds or even thousands of programs springing up. Some very good, some awful and only a few actually connected to employers. That is really part of the tragedy of this.”
A lack of consistent standards for training also means there is a large pool of training program graduates with a varying range of skills. The competition for green jobs, like wind technicians, is intense.
Lance Castonguay, 33, of Livermore Falls, Maine, attended a private, six-month program in Washington State to learn how to be a wind technician. Castonguay, who paid $15,000 to attend the program, said it was an intensive learning experience, and he felt well-prepared to get a good job upon graduation.
Castonguay had worked in a series of seasonal jobs — teaching snowboarding in the winter and working as a hunting and fishing guide in warmer months. In central Maine where he grew up, there aren’t many career options left in the small towns that once depended on paper mills. That is, until the wind industry began making inroads into the state and nearby New Hampshire.
“I just figured this would give me the opportunity to live a better lifestyle,” he said.
Castonguay graduated in November 2010, with a diploma certifying him to work as a wind technician, but has had no luck finding a job. He estimates he has sent out more than 300 applications, and rarely gets an interview. In early May he made it to a second interview with Vestas, the Danish wind turbine giant, to work on a wind farm in nearby Dummer, N.H. He didn’t get the job.
“I don’t know where I’m at right now, I’m starting to lose faith, lose faith in getting a job,” he said. “The market is pretty much flooded, and I’ve noticed that a lot of guys who got picked over me have a two-year engineering degree,” he said. “I’ll keep looking until I get a job, but I’m starting to think it’s probably a better idea to go back to school.
Old skills still matter
One growth area is improving energy efficiency, said Carol Zabin, director of research at the Labor Center at University of California at Berkeley.
One recent study looked at the market for improving the efficiency of heating and cooling systems in homes, businesses and public buildings with new construction or upgrading old structure. The study found that by 2020, an $11 billion investment in the field will support 211,000 jobs in California alone.
But that’s not new jobs, Zabin cautioned; that’s total jobs. The bulk will be in the construction trades — as few as 2 percent will be in some new green trade that didn’t exist before.
She said much about the way green jobs, and green job training, is being pursued is flawed.
“There’s this kind of common wisdom, that there’s a whole lot of green jobs coming up – that they’re new and different, and you can just train folks for a little bit and they can do the work,” she said. “We think all those premises are wrong.”
But that’s just the approach some programs, backed by federal dollars, are pursuing.
Smaller community-based programs that seek out low-skilled workers in areas hit hardest by the economic downturn and try to offer them basic green job training have been the recipient of at least $150 million in stimulus green job training money under the Pathways out of Poverty program.
One such recipient is Central Piedmont Community College, in Charlotte, N.C., which received $753,000 to offer training to low-income local residents in basic skills to help them find employment with green employers. Three similar grants were given to other community colleges in Virginia and South Carolina as part of a regional effort called Career Pathways for a Green South. According to the project description given to the Department of Labor, the program would train 700 workers and find employment for 400 of them in “weatherization projects as well as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar energy sectors.”
Keith Ratliff, who directs the program for Central Piedmont, said it is running alongside higher-level degree programs with more advanced training offered by the college, and now has 40 students. Funding will run out in December. Ratliff said there is no data yet on how many trainees have found jobs, but there was huge interest from potential applicants — 300 or 400, he estimated. No surprise, given the economics of the region; unemployment in the county is more than 11 percent, and more than 14 percent of county residents lived below the poverty line, according to the most recent figures.
The training program provided by Pathways money is less rigorous than the two-year degree Central Piedmont offers, Ratliff acknowledged, but still he’s confident it’s helping.
“That’s not to say they can’t go on and do real well. The skills they have will at least get them hired,” he said.
Skills must match need
The program at Central Piedmont is being developed in association with a council of local employers in the green energy industry — mostly manufacturers — who have advised the college on what classes to offer and what skills are needed.
Workforce development experts say that having employers connected to the program is vital, but Zabin warned against programs that try to push low-skill workers through a program too quickly, with just enough basic knowledge in one area, such as how to install solar panels.
“It’s a little like saying an architect only needs to know green building, they don’t need to know the fundamentals of structural integrity,” she said.
“There are very good programs that are community college collaborations, and some of the stimulus money sort of fit into those broader programs,” she said. “But an awful lot were sort of these stand-alone programs, without connection to employers and, frankly, trained for lousy jobs. It’s kind of been a travesty.”
Zabin backs the expansion of training through existing train-as-you-work programs, such as apprenticeship programs for skilled union workers in the construction trades, including electrical work, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and plumbing. The programs are operated jointly by unions and employers who pay for training, and workers are hired as employees who train on the job until they’re certified.
White said no matter the training method, being able to properly match trainees with employers is vital.
“Creating any kind of training pathway, green or otherwise, that doesn’t have a job at the end of it, and employer that will hire you, is a disservice to workers,” she said, “Particularly those workers we care most about — low skill or low income — who are going to spend a lot of time and energy training for jobs that may not exist.”
Trying to develop a green workforce that can actually lift workers up to middle-class earning levels can’t be done piecemeal, White said. But with a patchwork of agencies overseeing green industries, a piecemeal approach is what the country is getting.
“Instead of having a culture that thinks about moving people up into higher education in a way that connects them with good jobs — with benefits — you have the Department of Labor, Department of Energy, Department of Transportation, funding pilot projects, tons of pilot projects, but no systematic ways to reform the education system,” she said.
A report from the Brookings Institution in July on the green economy found that there are more opportunities for low- and middle-schooled workers in clean-tech industries than in the economy as a whole.
But the report also describes the green or clean economy as an “enigma … hard to assess … and tricky to define."
And without a comprehensive strategy for green job creation, middle-class green jobs have been elusive.
A 2009 study by Good Jobs First, a national think-tank that highlights corporate subsidies and advocates job quality to be a priority in economic development, found green jobs are not guaranteed to be good jobs.
“One of the greatest risks is that, in our haste to create a large quantity of new green jobs, we pay too little attention to their quality,” the report’s executive summary concludes. “Until now, discussions of green jobs have largely assumed that these will be good, middle-class jobs. In this report we test that assumption and find that it is not always valid.”
Although the report found examples of green jobs in manufacturing that offered middle-class wages and benefits, it also found numerous examples where they didn’t. For example, the report surveyed 16 solar and wind manufacturing plants, and found the average pay at all of them was below the median salary needed to support a family of two adults and two children.
Biggest hurdles to come
Now the green-job training effort faces perhaps the biggest hurdle: Money that has been supporting it, as misdirected as some of it might have been, may come screeching to a halt.
Funding for programs like Pathways Out of Poverty ends at the end of this year, and even some of the most ambitious green-stimulus programs — the kind that were designed to stimulate the industry directly so that jobs would be created — will be phased out at the end of this year.
Green-industry advocates are pushing for new measures, including a renewable energy standard that would require green-energy production, or the extension of existing tax breaks for green energy. But those discussions are far from center stage in a Washington focused on deficit reduction and spending cuts.
With no clear plan to help green industries and manufacturing thrive, the future isn’t rosy for people like McDonald and Castonguay.
But they haven’t lost hope.
“We are keeping our heads high and are moving forward,” McDonald said. “We don’t know what ‘quit’ is, and we will not show our son how to give up – only push on, no matter the situation.”
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