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The Built Environment

The Built Environment

Picture of Christopher Weber

In mid-November, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) held its annual Greenbuild Expo here in Chicago, and I went to check it out. I wanted to see who, if anyone, in the $2.6 trillion green-building industry was hiring during these continuing post-recession dark days.

The USGBC is a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that developed the widely used LEED standards, which enable folks to measure how sustainable a particular building is. Greenbuild is a massive event, bringing together nearly 30,000 people to discuss everything from electric vehicles to cork flooring.

Ignoring the teeming hall of exhibitors, I beelined for the Green Jobs Fair. Many people have argued that green jobs-a broad term which encompasses everything from building weatherization to alternative energy to urban agriculture-represent the future of the U.S. economy. The activist and former White House advisor Van Jones has made this case, as has New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

Are green jobs living up to the hype, especially in this anemic economy? A job fair seemed a good place to look for clues.

By the end of the first hour, people were lined up 15 deep to talk to company reps. The longest queues had formed, predictably, at the tables of big, well-known construction and engineering firms. I saw lots of recent college grads, whose hand-letter name-tags identified them as engineering and environmental science majors. But more than a few middle-aged professionals waited in the lines.

Bank of America had three representatives on duty. I asked one of them, a woman wearing the company's signature red, how many environmental staff the bank employed. "We consider every job a green job," she replied unhelpfully. To be sure, there's some vagueness about what, exactly, constitutes a green job-but bank tellers? Really?

How many people was the bank actually looking to hire? I asked.

None, it turned out. Bank of America had decided to make every new branch LEED certified, she explained, and they had recently hired six people to help oversee this work. It seemed that the country's largest bank had all the environmental professionals it needed, thank you very much. So why was it taking resumes at a green job fair?

The job prospects seemed much better at the table of Madison Construction, a mid-sized company based in the Chicago suburbs. A broad-shouldered gentleman there handed me a list of six positions he was looking to fill immediately. They included geothermal drill operator, building auditor, and weatherization worker. This last position, he said, was often filled by ex-cons who had completed a green-job training program. In fact, he said Madison currently had 15 of these "second chance" workers on staff. So not only was the company actually hiring, but it needed workers urgently enough to overlook a past indiscretion or two.

I ended at the table of the local pipefitters union. Though the union was seeking applicants for its paid apprenticeship program, nobody wanted to talk to the affable, mustached union rep. He stood alone at his table-underscoring the troubling lack of collaboration between green business and labor unions. For one thing, the pipefitters were the only labor union represented among the two dozen organizations at the fair. With unions in urgent need of new blood, why wouldn't they want to reach out to the 500 eager job-seekers at this fair?

Conversely, what did these 500 job-seekers have against pipefitting? Maybe the job wasn't a good fit for some of them-but nobody wants to learn a good-paying, versatile trade essential to geothermal, solar, and energy-conservation projects? With nearly a million unemployed workers in the Chicago area, the USGBC needs to do a better job reaching out to all kinds of people, not just engineering majors.

What really worries me is that the minimal involvement by unions suggests the USGBC is less than focused on the things that unions represent: strong wages, decent health benefits, and safe working conditions.

Are green jobs going to be good jobs? It's still an open question.

Crossposted from E Magazine,


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