Friday, February 5, 2010

Green Jobs Redux

Alex Steffen has a provocative piece on the fate of green jobs over at I'll let you read it yourself, but it led me to review where the green jobs concept has gone in New Mexico.

I would be reluctant to lose the name or concept of 'green jobs' even though the vagueness of the phrase played significantly in the collapse of momentum his post chronicles.

In Santa Fe, we managed to create a few youth training programs while the concept was hot, and they've mostly survived. Green jobs are actually not all that glamorous when the dust settles -- most are old-fashioned skilled manual labor jobs like your grandfather had and they can't really support the kind of sustained publicity that was demanded of them in building a national movement.

'Green Jobs' carried a double meaning, and the idea broke down here on both counts: When "green" meant sustainability, the conversation bottomed out in debate locally as to what is or is not a green job -- would an accountant for a solar company be green? And the jobs themselves just simply slowed with the fate of the construction industry. When "green" meant, in a highly coded fashion, that under-privileged youth, or populations generally, i.e. minorities, would be the focus of the programs, the conversation broke down in more complex ways.

In our area, there is very little of the working class vs. welfare dynamic Steffen describes. Our version is that the native, Hispanic, traditional, and largely Democratic political network assumes a 'taking care of our own' posture without adequate resources or high enough aspirations, while the supposedly more progressive, largely transplant Anglo network talks about better models, but fails to deliver the political commitment to really fund programs. And here there is an echo of the culture war Steffen laments in other parts of the country: that government shouldn't subsidize workers in certain industries if it can't quantify the economic gains.

As I read it, Steffen thinks the social justice agenda was too explicit in the Van Jones version of green jobs. I don't believe that social justice as a core value should be camouflaged, but rather that it should stay in the background while we work out the mechanics of programs to ensure that they are solidly funded and framed to be taken up by the intended participants. Green jobs programs consistently underestimate the degree of mentorship needed, the necessity of funding the mentorship outside of the break-even business model of the program, and the importance of culturally appropriate mentors.

I would suggest the following remedies for green jobs programs in New Mexico:
1. Swing the door wide open on what constitutes a "green" career. Anything with a triple bottom line, even a modest one, should qualify. I know this weakens the actual polar-bear-saving appeal of the concept, but I don't think liberals are the ones in need of convincing.
2. Focus public spending on job-training (rather than appearing to subsidize specific industries, like solar) and make the connection to economic development entirely transparent.
3. Like Teach for America or other programs that forgive school loans, we should build in incentives or commitments to stay in the state after going through training. This helps local officials see where their dollars go, and it also ends up benefiting the local Hispanic students, who statistically are the ones likely to make a commitment to stay near their families.