Thursday, October 16, 2008

Green Machine

Blue-collar city, meet green-collar jobs. Are you ready?

By Lee Chilcote, Issue Date: 10/15/08

Ed Weston spends his days working with companies that make wind turbine parts, an industry that he says is bringing jobs to Northeast Ohio, but as he meets with companies across the region, he's vexed by one question: Why do they have trouble finding workers?

"I'm talking about good jobs that pay fifteen dollars or more per hour," says Weston. "You walk into a foundry, the same old foundry that's been there forever, and the lines are jammed. They're making castings and parts for wind turbines. But they’re always looking for people."

Part of the issue, he says, is lack of training. Ohio companies supply a large portion of the wind turbine parts built in the U.S., his research shows. Yet while the state's 7.4% unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country, the companies that supply parts to this growing industry are often hiring.

Wind power is perhaps the most iconic of green industries in Northeast Ohio, yet experts say that there's potential to grow other types of green-collar jobs here, as well. A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) cites the potential for 550,000 new green jobs in Ohio over the next few decades. Advocates say that Northeast Ohio has assets that could help us to progress into a green economy, including a strong manufacturing base and growing programs to train workers.

Yet as the effort to pair green-collar jobs with blue-collar workers ramps up, some leaders question whether our workforce is ready. Others question the significance of the green economy. Still, leaders from the city of Cleveland up to the Governor's office are betting that green-collar jobs will help Cleveland's economy to grow.

"Green jobs can be an economic driver for Northeast Ohio," says Leo Russo, Executive Director of Cuyahoga Community College's Green Academy.

Tom Waltermire, CEO of Team NEO, an organization whose mission it is to attract business to Northeast Ohio, is not sure that green jobs are a trend. He also says that it's tough to measure green-collar job growth in Cleveland because no one has completed a quantitative study.

"What the heck is a green collar job, anyway?" he says, chuckling at the notion's newfound celebrity. "There's no data on green jobs. My job is to get any kind of business here -- whether they are polluters or not."

Waltermire admits that wind power could give our economy a big lift. "It's got Northeast Ohio written all over it," he says. "Steel poles and fiberglass blades... This is the kind of stuff that we're good at making. We're already making the components here. Now we want to attract a company that assembles the turbines."

Many experts agree that if Cleveland is to capitalize on this trend, then more work force training is needed. "Every politician is talking about it, but there's a training gap," adds Andrew Watterson, the city of Cleveland's Sustainability Manager. "In manufacturing, we have a big advantage over other areas because we have the supply chain and the work force, yet workers still need to get certified."

Leo Russo, Executive Director of Cuyahoga Community College's Green Academy, which provides training for green-collar jobs, agrees that more focus on training is needed. "I get complaints from contractors who have trouble reading green specs when they are bidding on jobs," he says. "There are training programs for architects and other professionals -- but until we started the Green Academy, there was virtually no training for the trades."

Other cities have joined in the effort to attract green-collar jobs. In July, the city of Oakland, California allocated $250,000 in seed funding for a "Green Collar Jobs Corp" that provides workforce training for city residents. Washington D.C. and Portland, Oregon are working on similar programs.

To grow Northeast Ohio's ability to attract green-collar jobs, Watterson believes that more effort is needed to provide training for low-income workers. In partnership with Tri-C's Green Academy, he has helped to create "Pathways out of Poverty," a training program for people not currently in the workforce.

"The missing link is getting people ready for employment," says Watterson.

To this end, Russo's program is expanding rapidly. While the Green Academy initially provided training in green building, the program now offers classes on interior design, health care and green business innovation. Approximately 200 people have participated in the program since January.

In addition, the Green Academy recently received a $600,000 grant from the Ohio Department of Development to fund efforts to take its training programs statewide. With this grant, Tri-C will develop a sustainability curriculum for other community colleges in Ohio. Russo plans to roll out the training programs in Columbus, Marietta, Youngstown, and Cincinnati by April 2009.

Jennifer Connolly, Executive Director of the Green Building Coalition (GBC), says that the demand for subcontractors trained in green building is rising. “The number of professionals accredited in green building in Cleveland is constantly going up,” she says. As more green building projects get underway, trained subcontractors will be needed.

The GBC coordinates training for the Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Design (LEED) program, a national certification program in green building. Currently, there are about 150 architects and other LEED-certified professionals in Cleveland.

Watterson expects "Pathways Out of Poverty" and other city-led initiatives to create more job opportunities in the future. One example is a city jobs program that hired 250 youth to install rain barrels on Cleveland residents' homes this past summer. The program, he says, helped residents to save on their water bills, provided work experience for city youth, and kept excess water out of the city's sewer system.

While industry leaders say that more work force training is needed, they also agree that there is a near-consensus about addressing the problem at the state and regional level. Watterson says that a turning point for him was seeing Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher attend the American Wind Energy Conference this year.

"Fisher spoke at the conference and met with companies there," he says. "Previously, the Ohio Department of Development had sent only staff people."

Weston agrees, citing Ohio's recently passed "portfolio standards" requiring power companies to use renewable sources to produce a portion of their energy. A little over half of the states in the U.S. have passed portfolio standards. "Ohio's new standards are going to help drive the sustainability economy, including wind energy," he says.

As training programs like the Green Academy ramp up, providers says that they must walk a delicate line between training workers for jobs in emerging industries, and providing them with skills to help them find jobs right away.

"It doesn't make sense to train people for industries where there are no jobs," says Watterson. "There’s just not much of an economy yet around solar panels."

That, too, may change. Jean Stepanik, who manages training for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workes (IBEW) in Cleveland, expects demand for solar installation to rise in coming years. The IBEW apprenticeship program for solar panel wiring graduates about fifty journeymen each year. The union recently rewrote its training curriculum -- starting in 2009, every journeyman going through the program will have to get certified to wire solar panels.

"You can't just look in a phone book and pick an electrical contractor," Stepanik says. "There's a lot of accountability, and solar installation is a difficult certification to get."

In industries such as wind, a surge in demand across the board will likely cause a shortage until Ohio industries get up to speed.

"When [billionaire businessman and alternative energy advocate] T. Boone Pickens places a two-billion-dollar order for wind turbine parts, you know it’s going to take a while to get caught up," Weston says.

In the long term, this means greater demand for green-collar workers. Watterson says that means Northeast Ohio's leaders need to continue to step up efforts at workforce training. He's not worried, however, stressing that we already have an edge because of our manufacturing base.

In a way, Watterson says, we're so far behind that we're now ahead. "When it comes to green jobs, we are benefiting from having so much manufacturing here," he says. "It's a bit like those plaid pants in your closet coming back in style."