Blacks currently lag in clean energy jobs boom

Green energy leaders say economic policies need to ensure racial diversity

(Courtesy of MGN Online)

Clean energy jobs are growing in every Midwestern state, including Minnesota, according to a new report.

“Clean Jobs America,” a report released in March by Environmental Entrepreneurs, a national non-partisan advocacy group, states that clean energy jobs are growing at about 4.4 percent annually in the Midwest. These jobs are mainly in renewable energy (wind and solar), and three out of four clean energy workers are in energy-efficiency jobs (manufacturing or installing appliances, heating and air conditioning equipment and insulation).

Are these jobs reaching Blacks, people of low income, and other persons of color in economically challenged areas in the country? Many union and environmental leaders debated this at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference held in Cleveland in June. A transition to clean-energy jobs is needed, they point out.

“Retooling” along with effective job training is needed, stated U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez during his keynote address at the conference, sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation.

Kim Glas, Mike Langford, Michael Brune, Leo Gerard, and Collin O’Mara
Kim Glas, Mike Langford, Michael Brune, Leo Gerard, and Collin O’Mara (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

“We are not doing nearly enough,” National Wildlife Foundation President and CEO Collin O’Mara told the MSR when asked why clean energy jobs don’t seem to be reaching Blacks and others in economically impacted communities, such as in Minneapolis during a clean-energy transition media briefing. “You have to have sustainable investments year after year, and it can’t be hit or miss,” said O’Mara. “It’s not fair to workers who are getting trained for jobs that may or may not be there… If you’re refitting every building or repairing our sewers and our grids, there is enough work for everybody whether in the Twin Cities or anywhere. These are common sense things we should be doing.”

Making wind turbines is “a small part but it should have been a big part” of the renewable energy movement, noted United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard. If a national mandate was enacted, he said, it would have helped create more clean energy jobs: “You can’t make anything in America without steel,” said Gerard.

Long-term “sustainable” clean energy jobs are needed, not some “fly-by-night, they-come-and-they-go outfits,” added Utility Workers Union President Mike Langford. “We can literally create thousands of jobs in this country just by repairing and bring back manufacturing in these areas,” he said on repairing and replacing gas and water pipelines in this country.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said, “We know right now that the fastest growing job in 2016 across the U.S. economy is a wind turbine service technician,” adding that solar panel installers also rank high among the top-10 jobs now in demand. “Our challenge is to make sure that those jobs, and hundreds and thousands of jobs like that, work for workers in communities.”

Brune added that there is a health component as well: “The African American community along with Latinos [are] bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of air and water pollution. Around the world, according to the World Health Organization, at least five million people die prematurely…because of air pollution. In the United States 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal burning power plant. Most of the dirtiest coal plants in the country are located in low-income communities and communities of color.“

Diversity and family-sustaining jobs “must be kept in mind” in the clean energy transition, said Gerard. “It has to be…a ‘Made in America’ policy. [It] must be done with diversity in mind — people of color and people down on the economic ladder, and women. Then there will be room for everybody.”

“Racial and economic diversity” must be stressed, said Gerard when the MSR asked the group why the clean-energy transition has not benefitted Blacks at this time. “The only way we are going to help the African American community is that as we head into getting into these programs, that we are not afraid to demand that the program be based on racial and economic diversity,” he reiterated.

The BlueGreen Alliance was started 10 years ago, and Brune said the Sierra Club, the United Steelworkers, and the Utility Workers Union, among others, are founding members. “We no longer look at climate change as solely a problem for us to solve,” he said. “We also no longer see the environmental community and the labor community as inherently in conflict but fundamentally being strategically aligned.

“Whether in Minnesota or here in Ohio, or anywhere across the country, there is an opportunity to begin to make this transition,” continued Brune. “And we should be making sure that jobs are going to communities that need them the most, and they are high-quality jobs so that the workers in that industry will be able to support families in their communities with those jobs.”

After the briefing, BlueGreen Alliance Executive Director Kim Glas told the MSR, “I think that the clean energy economy…has not been equal for everybody. We need to ensure that communities of color are getting access to quality jobs that are being created. We need both public policy at the local and state level, and we also must ensure that private industry [is] also being held accountable to make sure that these jobs reflect the community.

“That’s an inherent challenge in doing this work,” continued Glas. “But it is a huge missed opportunity if we don’t seize the moment in places across Minnesota and across our country.”


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