The Truth About Green Collar Jobs: Lessons from the Residential Retrofit Industry


Every surfer knows you can’t ride a wave until it breaks.  But for the residential energy efficiency industry, whose surge in growth has often been compared to a tidal wave, the wave may be more of a slow ripple.

Despite the billions of dollars that have been allocated nationwide to increase demand for residential retrofits, the corresponding surge in job growth just hasn’t appeared.  The promise of green jobs “for all” has led to nationwide investments in green job training programs, but many of those programs have found themselves disappointed with how few candidates they’ve been able to place or the quality of the jobs created.  Though there is no comprehensive data on green job training program placement rates or retention (something which should be done), training providers across the country lament the low percentage of students who were actually able to find career-track, full-time “green” jobs.  Even the best students often find themselves working part-time or pulling a paycheck from heavily government-subsidized jobs tied to federal stimulus spending and its limited timeframe.  At Rising Sun Energy Center’s Green Energy Training Services (GETS) Program, Elena Foshay explains, “Despite all the outreach we’ve done to employers, we still have a really hard time placing people in the industry.  Of the 137 people we have trained over the past year and a half, 39 are working in Building Performance or related industries.”

Workforce development specialists are also concerned. David Gruber and Caz Pereira of San Francisco Bay Area-based Growth Sector are skeptical that the “green sectors” can really provide the quality jobs students are expecting when they invest in “green” skills training or education.  Caz explains, “We’ve found it difficult to identify jobs beyond the limited number of commission-based sales and auditing jobs.  When we really drilled down on the numbers, we found that even estimates with some pretty generous assumptions led to low hundreds of jobs in the residential retrofit industry in Alameda County, not thousands.” And at the UC Berkeley Labor Center Green Jobs Summit on December 8, the report authors presented the key findings that “The continuing overhang in both residential and nonresidential construction is likely to dampen the number of new green jobs for the near future. Many of the currently unemployed construction workers already possess skills applicable to the green economy and will need only limited additional training when they return to work.” (The study concludes that only .2% of the California Employment Development Department’s estimates for new jobs created in the state through 2020 will be in the energy efficiency, distributed generation, and demand response sectors.)

Despite the lower-than-expected job growth predictions, the swell may still be building.  At a November 18 Bay Area Clean Energy Careers Workshop focused on growing the home energy retrofit industry (sponsored by Skyline College through a Department of Labor grant), one participant remarked, “You’d have to be crazy not to see the opportunity. The short-term goals of Energy Upgrade California [California’s comprehensive home retrofit incentive and marketing program] are to retrofit 130,000 homes by 2012, and this represents only 1% of the California market.” (Full disclosure: Skyline College was a client of Cross Sector Strategies in Fall 2010.)  While recognizing that, to date, “the incentive dollars and emphasis on this industry haven’t met contractors’ expectations,” Charles Carter, Virginia Community College System’s Residential Energy Management Training Program Director explains, “It will take many years of marketing and customer outreach for this industry to grow. The market will grow, but we need to invest in it for the long haul.”

Understanding the link between growing demand for the clean energy industries and their ability to pair students with jobs, training providers such as Skyline College are responding by hosting workshops to discuss business development and offering courses on sales, as well as the more technical ones on energy auditing. Rising Sun has found placements for several students with GETS Energy Services, a social enterprise that employs some of the program’s graduates to perform retrofits for both the City of Berkeley and the City of Richmond’s programs.  And other training providers, such as Isles in New Jersey, have been quite pleased with their ability to serve as an employment pipeline for many local HVAC and home performance employers.

Though the growth of the energy efficiency and clean energy industries may not cure our troubled economy overnight, remembering the following might help us stay optimistic as we train the clean energy workforce of the future:

  • Continued investments from utilities and state and local governments are likely to last beyond ARRA.  Though job creation may lag initial investments into the market, global warming, environmental justice, and national security concerns will spur the growth of the clean energy and energy efficiency industries for many years to come.
  • Programs and policies that pair investments in business development and market expansion with investments in training are more likely to create the jobs for which the training is intended.
  • Green tech skills and education are often applicable in more than one sector or industry.  Teaching students marketing, sales, science, and engineering will not only prepare them for work in the clean energy industry, but position them to contribute to other industries as well.
  • Participation in the clean energy economy extends beyond work in private sector companies. Unions, community action agencies, and governments will all need people as well.
  • Employers, as people, make decisions based on relationships.  When companies do have demand for new workers, they will reach out to the organizations and training providers they know and trust. Building relationships early may mean more connectivity to employers later on.

Though the crucial national effort toward building the nation’s clean energy workforce must continue, asking hard questions now will allow us to modify training curriculum and target programmatic investments more effectively.  Places that have already considered these issues will be in the best position to catch the first waves as the economy rebounds.

Elizabeth Redman is the Founder of Cross Sector Strategies, a consulting firm that specializes in collaborative economic development strategies and policies to promote sustainable business growth.



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[…] Despite the billions of dollars that have been allocated nationwide to increase demand for residential retrofits, the corresponding surge in job growth just hasn't appeared. The promise of green jobs “for all” has led to …  […]

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