After three weeks of class, Currington drove Thompson and his classmate Josue Hernandez to get their first, real, on-the-green-job experience. Rising Sun, one of the five nonprofit partners of the East Bay Corps, employs young people over the summer to make green house calls. During these calls, young workers audit energy efficiency in private homes and suggest free or low-cost upgrades.
On this green house call, Thompson rang the doorbell, and Richmond resident Jesse Thomas opened the door. In the next 30 minutes, Thompson and Hernandez rushed through the house from room to room. They measured water pressure, checked for hidden leaks under all sinks and toilets, swapped incandescent lightbulbs with free fluorescent ones, installed free water-saving shower heads and faucets, and peered at the temperature of the fridge. "I'd love to do these house calls full-time," Thompson told me as we drove back to class.
It's now been a year since Thompson graduated. He's not doing green house calls full-time, but he is employed—at a UPS warehouse in Richmond. While at the Corps, Thompson also moved from a homeless shelter into an affordable public-housing apartment in Richmond. He even went to check out the campus of Berkeley Community College. For now he's happy to have a UPS job, no small feat in a city with 16 percent unemployment.
Hanauer, the Workforce Collaborative coordinator who brought in Thompson, tells me that the East Bay green-jobs training is very similar to traditional job-training programs that his organization or an outfit like Goodwill have been teaching for years. Students got a good dose of remedial skills in math and reading, plus communication and presentation skills with an environmental twist. "It is the first time all participants in our class were young, classes had an environmental component, and all participants got a $900 stipend," Hanauer explained. For Thompson, who hadn't heard of green jobs before this class and confessed he didn't understand how global warming worked, it was the stipend that got him hooked more than anything. "It made me feel like I have a job," he said.
The East Bay Green Job Corps graduation, June 4, 2010. Photos: Kristina RizgaThe Corps graduated 103 students over the course of one year. According to Hanauer, about 20 percent of the participants currently have jobs. Fifteen students are in the solar industry. Six are working in construction, masonry, welding, or painting. About 11 are enrolled in apprenticeships like Solar Richmond or YouthBuild, and about a fifth of the graduates are enrolled in community colleges. Every student works with a case manager for a year after graduation to make sure they stay on track.
Statistically speaking, students from the East Bay Green Job Corps are doing better than green-job training participants nationally. Using the latest available data that measures outcomes for the first eight months of these grants, the Department of Labor reports that approximately 9,184 people are enrolled in the trainings, 3,586 have graduated, and about 13 percent of graduates have jobs. The DOL doesn't track the age of participants, but a review of proposals to the department shows that young people were a significant segment of the students.
The DOL informed Mother Jones they also don't track how many green-job trainees enroll in unpaid apprenticeships, community colleges, or GED programs after graduation. So, while Thompson's job at UPS will show up in the national data about green-job-training program effectiveness, we won't see anything about his apprenticeship stint at the Solar Richmond before that. Also statistically invisible: Thompson's move from a homeless shelter to an apartment, for example, or his first visit to a college campus. His case manager helped Thompson get his social security number, birth certificate, and driver's license. Then, there is possibly the most important, long-term impact: students' new vision of their future selves as college students or middle-class people, connected to the world beyond their block.
Graduation certificates.Angela Green, who works as a case manager with each student for a year after graduation, is a longtime resident of Richmond. "The media likes to come to graduations and look at the statistics, but they don't spend time in our communities. I'll be driving home for lunch hour, and there are fewer kids on those street corners while these trainings are on," she reflects. "For those two months, the kids who were tearing our communities down, are now thinking how to build them back up," she tells me.
Still, there's no denying that while green jobs have grown at a higher pace than other jobs in California, the sector represents only 1 percent of the total Golden State economy. And nationally, we get only about 7 percent of our energy from renewable sources. So, while it may be the most promising—and environmentally wise—field for long-term job growth, in the short-term these gains are a drop in the bucket in an economy that has shed 7.5 million jobs since the recession took hold in December 2007.
Does this mean green job trainers are selling empty hope, as some media reports have concluded in other states? "Depends on what you choose to see," Currington said. "We told students that the green, and general job market, is crappy, but we wanted them to know that a long-term commitment to vocational or college training can lead to work beyond the minimum wage at McDonald's or BestBuy."
I called Thompson a few weeks ago and asked him what he remembers most about the green-job training a year later: "Unity, coming together united to solve a cause. People in my community just don't do that enough." He also unplugs all of his appliances when he goes to work now. Is he disappointed that he's not doing green house calls full-time? "I am," he said. "But I have this job." And that's not all. "Doing house calls made me realize that I'm good at talking to people and selling products to them," he told me during a break from moving boxes at a UPS warehouse. "I want to save money and get a degree in business administration."