Reimagining Green Workforce Development: Creating Career Pathways at Scale through Collaboration

Posted by Alexandra Paxton on

Four years ago, national leaders identified the green economy as the central solution to address record climate change, rampant unemployment, and limited career pathways available for low-income and hard-to-employ workers. However, public and private investments in green industries like energy efficiency retrofits have yet to deliver large-scale family-supporting career opportunities for low-income and hard-to-employ job seekers, even with the availability of funding and programs to train new workers.

In our study of the City of Philadelphia’s landmark investment in green stormwater infrastructure (GSI), we observed this same tension between a vision of leveraging public investment to benefit a workforce that had been left behind and the difficulty of identifying enough opportunities to match expectations.

In an innovative and nationally recognized agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency, Philadelphia recently allocated between $800 million and $1 billion over 25 years for green stormwater installations on public property. Interested in leveraging private capital for green stormwater infrastructure, the city also modified its stormwater fee structure to incent the private sector to make similar investments on private land. With this huge expected investment, stakeholders rightly have great optimism about the potential to create much-needed jobs for low-income and hard-to-employ residents – and not low-wage dead-end jobs, but jobs that lead to upwardly-mobile careers and enable people to support their families.

Yet in looking at the Philadelphia case, we uncovered potential roadblocks that would limit workers’ ability to connect to employment opportunities at scale:

Direct job creation from green stormwater investments at any particular point of time will be relatively small, as each project—a rain garden, a green roof, permeable paving—is of a smaller scale than traditional (“gray”) infrastructure, such as sewer upgrades or water treatment plant construction.

Most of the jobs involved in green stormwater infrastructure are not new or different. They are construction and landscaping jobs, albeit with some new materials and techniques. Thus, the existing workforce can largely do the work coming down the pike. That’s not to say there aren’t new market and job opportunities arising out of a growing focus on sustainability; the aging of the existing construction workforce ensures that jobs will open up over time. But the point is that green stormwater infrastructure is not a brand-new workforce sector.

Most entry-level opportunities in these fields are low-wage and low-skill. Without deliberate planning and intervention, these starter jobs won’t develop into higher-wage, higher-skill careers, even if they did go to targeted jobseekers. This mirrors experiences in weatherization and efficiency retrofits.

So does green stormwater infrastructure pose a realistic opportunity for low-income communities to access quality jobs with career pathways? Will investment in green stormwater create opportunity for these targeted populations at scale?

One solution is to build a career lattice (as depicted below) that allows people to move vertically, horizontally, and diagonally across many green job sectors rather than a career ladder in just one sub-sector. With career ladders, workers have one pathway for promotion. But with the weaving and interconnected nature of a lattice, multiple entry points and multiple options for career progression exist. (For an excellent graphic representation of the difference between a career ladder and a career lattice, see Figure 3 in this Deloitte Review article.)

A fully-designed green career lattice would be founded on a program for worker readiness. This should include improving academic skills in a meaningful context, development of soft skills and self-esteem, and a holistic understanding of the field and relevance of sustainability. Once ready, an individual could be trained in the classroom or on the job for an entry-level position in construction, green stormwater infrastructure, landscaping, efficiency retrofits, weatherization, or other related fields.

The entry-level job would then be more than a low-wage, low-skill endpoint; rather, it would be a chance for low-income workers to refine skills and further define their interests in the field; a launching pad to a variety of career options.

There are many advantages to a career lattice:

Numerous entry points for inexperienced workers, such as entry-level jobs, high school career tech programs, pre-apprenticeship programs, one-stop recruitment, referral from a community-based organization, and others. Multiple entry points are essential because individual jobseekers have different needs, skills, interests, and challenges. Among other factors, they have different barriers to overcome, different abilities to defer earning a paycheck while training, and different educational attainment levels.

Greater number of entry-level job openings for participants. In linking programs from a variety of green sectors, the lattice offers potential to create a critical mass of participants that would, overall, draw in more employers with jobs to fill.

Increase in career options, which create the scale that does not exist in any one pathway alone. The reality is that no one career path can accommodate large numbers of workers or the needs of people with different skills and barriers. But a lattice approach with many related career paths can provide opportunities at a larger scale. It also maximizes resources for workforce development initiatives and job creation programs

Cross-pollination of knowledge for workers exposed to several related industries. Workers with experience in another field benefit their employers by bringing out-of-the-box thinking to the jobsite. Exposure to other industries also helps hard-to-employ workers become flexible and adaptable enough to fill a variety of roles in the evolving field of “whole site performance” – collectively, all the activities that improve the water, waste, and energy efficiency of the building and site.

Building a green career lattice requires significant collaboration and coordination of resources to realize substantive benefits. In Philadelphia, there are a number of existing workforce development and training programs that have different funding sources and reach different client bases. If they can work together with employers and other cross-sector stakeholders in a collective impact model, they may be able to leverage public investments to create quality jobs for low-income people at the scale that everyone has been hoping for.

Alexandra Paxton is a Principal with Estolano LeSar Perez Advisors LLC