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Professor pushes for green jobs to reduce poverty

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Professor pushes for green jobs to reduce poverty
J. Phillip Thompson, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes the creation of green jobs has the potential to reduce poverty and unemployment in cities. As of December 2008, there were 26,000 Massachusetts construction workers out of work. As for creating quality jobs, these workers could receive training through union apprenticeships to take advantage of $6.5 million in green jobs. (Photo: Tony Irving)

Author: Tony IrvingJ. Phillip Thompson, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes the creation of green jobs has the potential to reduce poverty and unemployment in cities. As of December 2008, there were 26,000 Massachusetts construction workers out of work. As for creating quality jobs, these workers could receive training through union apprenticeships to take advantage of $6.5 million in green jobs.

The job future of Boston could be green — in more ways than one, says J. Phillip Thompson.

A professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Thompson has been touting green jobs as a way to reduce poverty and unemployment in cities. He believes that strategy would also do much to preserve urban diversity as the rising price of gasoline draws suburbanites back, pushing up real estate values and displacing low-income families. Then there is the considerable boost in the American contribution to slowing global warming.

Thompson teaches at an elite university that has fueled technological innovation and local economic growth, but the kinds of jobs he is talking about will be less for scientists in lab coats than for construction workers in hard hats.

At the most basic level, the green jobs would begin with weatherizing buildings to reduce energy loss. In Thompson’s vision, those workers would advance, with the benefit of union apprenticeships and other training programs, into every one of the well-paying building trades.

They would take on bigger, more challenging jobs retrofitting structures, installing community-based power systems, removing hazardous materials like lead and asbestos, even propping up the sinking Back Bay.

The money to start doing that work is on the way, Thompson says, in the form of $50 billion for the whole country in the federal stimulus package.

Massachusetts has already received $122 million for weatherizing low-income homes, about 10 times as much as arrived last year from Washington for the same purpose. In Boston, Action for Boston Community Development Inc. (ABCD) will do most of the weatherization work. About $6.5 million in stimulus funding has also flowed into city government for additional work on energy efficiency and conservation.

State money is in the pipeline, too — some from the regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gases. All of the government funding, he argues, could be leveraged to attract private investment and expand both the number of buildings greened-up and the jobs created.

“There are a lot of pots of money out there, and potentially it could create many thousands of jobs,” Thompson says.

Not everyone is as bullish as Thompson on the potential for the stimulus money to grow green jobs. The state and the city have already begun to train people to do such work. But a state official spoke of hundreds of trainees, while the city has announced it plans to reach 100.

Both governments have plans to leverage public funding to attract private funding, but it is unclear how much will be put up and how much employment opportunity will be expanded.

Finally, area building trades unions, which are not that diverse because of a history of exclusion, have as their first priority putting skilled, unemployed members back to work — not opening up their apprenticeship programs to low-income trainees.

“There are questions about how many new jobs are going to be created for people who are not highly trained,” says Conny Doty, the city’s director of jobs and community services. “There may be hundreds. There certainly aren’t thousands.”

In late June, Mayor Thomas M. Menino spent a week making announcements about “green collar” training programs and jobs. Even before that, Thompson was skeptical how much the city would accomplish.

“I think money will be spent in Boston for weatherization and other things labeled ‘green,’” Thompson says. “The question is whether the city and state will leverage governmental money to bring in private sector dollars to expand the number of buildings that are retrofitted. Retrofitting pays for itself over time, so you can attract a lot of private money.

“The second big issue,” he adds, “is the quality of jobs that get created — are we talking about union jobs? — and who gets those jobs.”

Thompson, 53, is an academic with firsthand experience in urban issues. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a master’s degree and doctorate from branches of the City University of New York, he worked as a deputy general manager of the New York Housing Authority and director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Coordination in the nation’s largest city. Then he returned to Boston, arriving at MIT nine years ago.

After Hurricane Katrina, Thompson coordinated MIT-sponsored projects in New Orleans, working with the local building trades and community groups to build affordable housing and create jobs. The construction unions there, he says, showed interest in reinventing themselves and bringing into their ranks more workers of color.

That was when his academic work and public advocacy hit the green path.

In November, Thompson was one of three conveners of the Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national partnership of building trades, community action programs and job training programs collaborating to upgrade energy systems in metropolitan areas and to make sure the money spent doing it is spread around equitably.

The national collaborative, where Thompson has been focused, plans to get started on local public-private partnerships in 14 cities. He says they are likely to include Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Louisville, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York, Oakland and San Francisco.

“Our thinking right now is we will not target Boston in our initial round of cities,” he says. “We can’t make rapid progress without the mayor being engaged and without the building trades being engaged. Boston has a history of racial antagonism, and the building trades have been a part of that, so there has to be some leadership.”

Frank Callahan, president of the Massachusetts Building Trades Council, could not be reached for comment. But Doty, the city official, said relieving unemployment among current members of the building trades is “the first obligation” of the unions. As of December, 26,000 construction workers were jobless in Massachusetts, she said, most of them concentrated inside I-495 and I-95.

“You have a lot of idle labor, highly-trained labor, so if opportunity comes along, you’re going to go to these people first” instead of training new apprentices, Doty says.

But the New England Carpenters Union, she said, has been amenable to a partnership with a private entity to train new workers to do energy audits and remedy any problems detected at the lower wages paid for residential jobs. Most unionized workers in the building trades work on large commercial projects.

“This might be a way to broker people coming into the union,” Doty says.

Mary Beth Campbell, director of workforce development at the state’s Clean Energy Center, says some building trades unions have been sending unemployed members to state-funded centers to get trained to do green jobs. Electrical workers, in particular, have been training to install solar and wind power systems, she said.

The green jobs that the state centers have been training workers to do, Campbell says, pay “well above the minimum wage. They average, I would say, between $12 and $15 an hour.” Solar-related jobs, she adds, would pay more than $20 an hour.

With training through union apprenticeships, green workers could earn the $50 to $60 an hour that electricians and heating-air conditioning specialists get, for example, Thompson says. Skills at that level could engage green workers in sophisticated retrofitting of buildings.

Those tasks could include, Thompson says, installing energy-efficient appliances and windows, “green roofs,” wind or tidal turbines to generate electricity, and systems to capture and recycle rainwater. In low-income areas, lead pipes and asbestos insulation could be removed.

“The Back Bay is sinking. It’s on pylons, and it has to be supported,” Thompson notes. “That’s a big project.”

The stimulus package envisions local governments spending big — with the private sector anteing up a share. There is $3.2 billion in Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants, with provisions that encourage city and state governments to use the money to reduce poverty, create jobs, increase job training and “leverage federal funds with other public and private resources.”

Menino’s office, in a June 24 announcement about the $6.5 million that city has received from that program, promised that the city will “stretch federal funding by leveraging existing utility programs and by accessing private-sector financial resources.”

But Doty doubts much private investment, which Thompson sees as easy to attract for cost-saving retrofits, is available.

“Nobody in the business sector has been able to see enough of this work to be done to make any money on it,” she says.

The state, Campbell of the Clean Energy Center says, is working to develop long-term partnerships with clean energy companies.

She expects the state will be “really competitive” for the billions in federal funding coming, because of groundwork laid in legislation Beacon Hill passed last year — the Green Jobs Act, Green Communities Act and Global Warming Solutions Act.

Thompson notes there’s still more federal money coming next year in a big transportation bill to repair infrastructure.

 “There is actually so much to do we’re actually going to have labor shortages in coming years,” he predicts.