A Green Job Renaissance?

Even decades after de-industrialization and outsourcing decimated the once-solid, well-paid, empowered blue collar union workforce of the Midwest, jobs are still being lost by the hundreds or thousands as industries tighten their belts or close up shop altogether — from the auto makers to candy makers.

But even though the region may no longer have the industries and unions for which it was once famous, it does have under-tapped resources that will likely become more and more valuable as climate change and the need to combat it with carbon offsets and alternative energy increasingly takes center stage.

In other words, parts of the Midwest have lots of wind. And even decent amounts of sun. And lots of buildings which could be retrofitted with energy saving technology and green roofs. And lots of contaminated brownfields which need to be cleaned up. And even lots of skilled laborers who could relatively easily transition from their past expertise into making and installing solar panels, wind turbines and the like.

As will be highlighted in a national day of action on September 27, cities and towns in the Midwest and beyond stand to potentially benefit from a “green collar” revolution, if they play their cards right. The day of action is sponsored by the 1Sky campaign, a multi-faceted coalition of environmental, business, political, community and other players; Green For All, an environmental justice and advocacy group. More than 500 events in 48 states are planned.

As exciting as this might all seem, “green-washing” — wherein corporations, governments, or individuals make a big show of being green without actually making meaningful changes or addressing the bigger picture — is rampant these days. So any plans and promises merit close scrutiny. On state and federal levels, most green jobs programs and green retrofit or habitat restoration programs are usually voluntary and based on tax breaks or grant funding.

In Chicago, for example, a Climate Action plan unveiled last week by the mayor here promises thousands of green jobs and building retrofits city — wide, with the mission of “leading by example.” But the city still suffers with a woefully inadequate public transit system which has undergone massive cuts in recent years; and the city lacks a comprehensive public recycling program.

Climate change is such a crisis now that actual enforceable federal, state and municipal laws and ordinances are needed to not only “encourage” but force businesses, government agencies and individuals to change their habits. So far there are no federal limits on greenhouse gases, though a cap and trade system is likely to be instituted during the next administration. About half the country’s states have greenhouse gas emissions regulations and limits.

As with greenhouse gas limits, in the case of green jobs it may take more than good intentions to make sure they really are living wage, stable positions that benefit local communities. Many cities including Los Angeles, Richmond, Oakland and Chicago have made a good start with Green Corps programs that train low income youth in green sector skilled jobs.

The trend in the American workplace in general right now is toward lower pay, benefits and stability, fewer unions and more temporary work. Without close oversight there is no reason green jobs like building and installing solar panels or turbines would essentially be any different that that. That’s where it’s up to community, labor and elected leaders to make sure the “green revolution” lifts communities and families up, rather than creating another sector with a race to the bottom.

Kari Lydersen is a staff writer out of The Washington Post midwest bureau and also freelances for publications including The Chicago Reporter and The Progressive. She is the author of three books, including “Revolt on Goose Island” (Melville House Press) released in June 2009. She also teaches Community News at Columbia College and teaches youth journalism in a non-profit program. www.karilydersen.com.


  1. The Local Economic & Employment Development Council participated in Chicago’s Green Jobs Now event at the Chicago Center for Green Technology. That was one of 660 Action Day events held in all 50 states to build the new economy.

    Yes, Chicago has a lot more to do; but at least we now have a climate action plan to achieve a 25% reduction below our 1990 Green House Gas emissions by 2020. Retrofitting buildings is targeted to provide 30% of those reductions. Clean and renewable energy sources are slated to account for another 34%. Even improved public transportation options are being prioritized to account for 23% of those reductions.

    But the key to an emerging green economy is that it not only improves the environment but that it also provides family-supporting wages with career ladders. That’s why a number of organizations are partnering together as the Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative. We are reaching out to employers to identify green job opportunities and we are reviewing current job training programs to develop new green curriculum for both incumbent workers and those seeking entry into green jobs with career ladders.

    I encourage other readers of Rooflines to become leaders for green jobs in your community. — Ted Wysocki


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