Neon Tommy, the online publication of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism - by Jacob Chung
Rola Halawanji played a key role in developing what was touted as cutting-edge source of jobs in Los Angeles and was called the California Clean Energy Workforce Training Program.
From June 2009 through April 2011 she and her team from Long Beach City College trained the underemployed and unemployed masses in the Long Beach area. Despite promises of a better future, however, many who completed the program could not find green pastures.
“We had participants who have lost their homes, who can barely survive on unemployment,” Halawanji said. “They were putting so much time and effort to go through these trainings in the hope of getting a job that will bring them back to living wages and that didn’t happen. It was very disappointing.”
In a down economy, green jobs are often championed as the savior for the jobless. And, it’s not without good reason.
During the 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced his plans to create jobs by investing in green technologies.
“In America, innovation doesn’t just change our lives. It is how we make our living,” Obama said on the topic of investing in new technologies. “We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology—an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.”
Latest employment studies lend credibility to Obama’s announcement. In 2011, Next 10—a non-partisan group organized to educate the public on state issues—contracted Collaborative Economics to release Many Shades of Green, a study on the growth of green economy in California. According to said study, green jobs in California have been on a steady increase between 1995 and 2009.
“In our analysis we’re tracking the businesses that provide product services that enable us to leverage clean energy sources, enable us to conserve energy and all natural resources, and finally, help us reduce and re-purpose waste,” said Tracey Grose, vice president and director of marketing for Collaborative Economics.
“Even over the recent period, we’re seeing continued growth in this area of economic activity,” Grose said. “We’ve done this now for five years in California—tracking this—and the growth is outpacing growth in the economy as a whole.”
Since 1995, green jobs in California have “expanded by 56 percent.” Even during the 2008-2009 recession, green employment increased by 3 percent according to the same studies. In fact, even with the recent Solyndra fiasco, studies show green employment has been steadily on the rise.
In the U.S., there are more than 100,000 solar jobs. In the next 12 months, an additional 24,000 jobs are expected to be added according to research from The Solar Foundation.
But if these numbers are correct, why aren’t people able to find these jobs?
Green jobs are like any other skill-based occupations. Employment is offered to those who know the industry and possess the skills to work without much training.
PermaCity—a Los Angeles-based solar panel installation company—is one of several hundred companies that got in on the solar technology game early. The company has seen a healthy growth in business since it launched in 2003.
PermaCity maintains 31 employees, 10 of whom work as field technicians. When asked about new hires for the company, PermaCity's acting Marketing Director Sara Rockoff said specialized training is a must.
“We need someone who can start working tomorrow,” Rockoff said.
Though in-house training is offered at PermaCity, Rockoff said most technicians at the company come from some sort of a electrical/engineering background. That’s because many of the green jobs that are available require specialized training.
In that vein, the California Clean Energy Workforce Training Program (CCEWTP) was established in a collaborative effort by: the Employment Development Department (EDD), a state department responsible connecting “millions of job seekers and employers in an effort to build the economy of the Golden State”; the California Energy Commission; the California Workforce Investment Board (State Board); and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).
The program promised a $23 million grant to train workers for emerging green jobs in California. Funding for the grant came from a combination of federal funds via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as well as several state-funded sources, including the State Energy Program (SEP), Workforce Investment Act (WIA), Governor’s Discretionary 15 Percent funds, and Assembly Bill (AB) 118 Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technology Program funds.
The goal was simple: Train the jobless and place them in the growing green industry. CCEWTP was separated into three distinct categories each focusing on a specific area in the green industry.
Category one focused on retraining people with construction backgrounds to “build upon the individuals existing construction skills and provide new skill development to retool them for employment in the green building or clean energy sectors.” (CCEWTP, Page 6)
Category two focused on pre-apprenticeships for those without construction background and aimed to provide “an understanding of basic construction practices/technologies with a solid grounding in green building, energy and water efficiency, and the installation of utility-scale renewable energy fields including generation, transmission, or distribution to prepare individuals for work in the building retrofit or utility-scale renewable energy field.” (CCEWTP, Page 9)
And, Category three focused on alternative and renewable fuel and vehicle transportation. (CCEWTP, Page 11)
Though it all seemed logical and straightforward, the end result was anything but.
For Halawanji and her team at the Long Beach City College Small Business Development Center, the plan was to use their grants, an estimated $5.4 million ($2.5 million through grants and $2.7 million matched by partners of the program including the city of Long Beach, the Port of Long Beach as well as larger organizations like Siemens) to train 300 people. But this was no small feat.
There were several hurdles for Halawanji’s teams to jump through before any real effects could be seen.
One such hurdle was the bureaucracy attached to the grants.
“The reporting was a nightmare,” Halawanji said. “[It] becomes really complex and it really takes away the energy or the time to develop innovative strategies because you’re so limited by a bureaucratic system. And each funding source want to have their part of the reporting so it really created a very complex [situation].”
But beyond the bureaucratic paper work, Halawanji said there was heavy pressure to perform within a short period of time.
“As soon as we received the award, the program had to be up and running within three months,” Halawanji said. “As we are training people we’re still establishing the foundation or the strategies for the program. So it was literally ‘hit the ground running’ and basically building a house while trying to live in it at the same time.”
Even with these hurdles, Halawanji said her team was one of the most efficient groups.
“We pretty much used it all,” Halawanji said in describing the grants received. “We were one of the few that were actually able to meet all the deliverables that we set out in the proposal.”
Halawanji, who comes from the background of environmental science studies, attributes the efficiency of her program to her knowledge of the field.
“I am familiar with the industry,” Halawanji said. “Unfortunately that wasn’t the case for other community colleges.”
Halawanji said others who received grants from CCEWTP did not have the background necessary to fully understand what was required to set up the program and see the most efficient outcome.
On her end, Halawanji’s experience paid off. The completion rate for the Long Beach program was well over 80 percent. Of the 237 people (130 people from Category one, 107 in Category two, and 20 people from Category 3) who signed up for the program, 218 finished.
But success isn’t measured by the passage rate alone. What’s more significant is how many of those trained people found jobs. In that sense, the success of the program was questionable.
Of the 218 who finished the program successfully, only 60 percent or an estimated 130 people were able to find jobs. Why? The government programs earmarked to provide jobs for the newly trained people were dissolved.
The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) for instance was one of the main initiatives Halawanji and her team expected to exist upon completion of the training.
PACE provided an incentive for homeowners to retrofit or upgrade homes to meet higher energy efficiency standards set by AB 32 to reduce emissions to emission limits from 1990.
Through PACE, the expenses of retrofitting a home would have been embedded to the property rather than to the owner of the home—meaning, for instance, “when the owner transfers property, the solar panel and the loan is transferred along with the property rather than the owner him/herself,” Halawanji said.
If passed, PACE would have provided the graduates from CCEWTP both temporary and long-term jobs in green construction. However, the measure was dropped mid-2010 because the Federal Housing Finance Agency said there could be potential “pitfalls” in the initiative.
With the collaspe of the housing industry still looming in the minds of many, taking on any new risk may have seemed out of the question.
“PACE would have been huge,” said Grose of Collaborative Economics. “That could have generated so many jobs for people coming out of the program.”
Unfortunately, the indefinite hold on PACE meant not many jobs were available even with the specialized training from CCEWTP. Though it may be easy to seek out large mortgage lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as scapegoats, Grose said it’s larger than just that.
“Things are falling apart in D.C.,” Grose said. “The national policy environment is completely incapacitated. Everything has become so overly politicized that it’s no longer about substance. It’s about tribe.”
The reason policies pertaining to energy conservation and research and development have been halted, according to Grose, is that policymakers are busy debating the validity of climate change spurred on by strongheaded support for party instead of progress.
“People aren’t thinking. They are just aligning themselves with their party,” Grose said. “Every other capital of the world is talking about, ‘How are we going to mitigate the impact of climate change?’”
Instead, what we need is for policymakers to put in place stricter energy efficiency standards and create stronger incentives, Grose said. But for the time being, that just was not the case.
It seems Halawanji and her team in Long Beach were fighting an uphill battle from the start. At the end of the 18-month training period, it took $5.4 million to find jobs for 130 people. Even this was considered fortunate for the team who scrambled to find work for the trained people by working with small business owners and other initiatives like Energy Upgrade California.
“Going into this, we actually thought that we wouldn’t train enough people for the jobs that were coming,” Halawanji said.
Judging by numbers alone, it would be easy to dismiss CCEWTP as a failure. When asked to comment via email and phone on the program’s success, the California Employment Development Department did not offer a response.
Halawanji, however, said she still considered the program a success because it was able to change the lives of many recipients.
“There was a person who was homeless before he came in for the training,” Halawanji said. “But through the program he was able to find a job.”
But when asked if she would again be willing to participate in a program like the California Clean Energy Workforce Training Program, Halawanji said no.
So is green economy the future for Los Angeles County? It may be, but the future is certainly not here yet.