President Barack Obama said the creation of green jobs and renewable energy sources is essential for the American economy to prosper in the 21st century. Vice President Joseph Biden praised greenjob creation as a way to build a strong middle class.
In August, Lisa Jackson, the first African-American administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, urged a gathering of black journalists to write about the demands for environmental change and the creation of green jobs coming for the black community.
The shift toward a green economy is visible in cities nationwide, even among small, nonprofits like Second Chance. The Baltimore-based organization has developed an innovative approach to green construction by recruiting, training and hiring unemployed people for work in the green economy.
Unemployment in the Baltimore area as of August 2009 was 7.7 percent, and 19 percent of residents were living below the poverty level in 2008. In Philadelphia, it is 8.8, with 24.1 percent living below the poverty level in 2008.
Second Chance Chief Executive Officer Mark Foster said the goal of the training program is to reduce the barriers in work experience that would prevent people who are unemployed from getting green jobs.
Second Chance focuses on deconstruction and architectural salvage. Its employees remove reusable materials and historical components of a building before it is demolished. Wood, marble, metal, stone and plaster that would have ended up crushed beneath the dust and rubble at a demolition site are salvaged and reused in other buildings or sold in one of Second Chance’s four retail warehouses. That helps divert tons of materials away from landfills in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in which Second Chance has deconstructed more than 400 buildings.
Perhaps more importantly, Second Chance builds its own workforce. The organization selects students for its training classes from a pool of unemployed people. Second Chance works with Baltimore’s Office of Employment Development to recruit students into its training classes. The students are people who had not been in the labor force.
Second Chance’s job training program teaches the technical skills needed to safely deconstruct a building, without damaging historic and valuable materials, said Co-Executive Director Andy Evans. He described the program as “Carpentry and Construction 101.”
Instructors from the Maryland Center for Arts and Technology teach the life skills component. The curriculum involves workplace communication skills, strategies to stay clear of alcohol and drugs, and problem-solving techniques.
Few of the students in the training program have consistent work experience, and many have not held a permanent full-time job in the past. Some are ex-offenders. The goal is that students adopt a positive attitude toward their work, viewing it as an important part of everyday life, instead of a chore.
Dorothy Brunson, executive director of the Maryland Center for Arts and Technology, said unemployed or underemployed students present unique challenges. Many struggle with anger, a lack of direction, self-esteem issues and family problems. If not addressed, these issues could hold them back in their career paths, Brunson said.
Instructors identify the unique problems that affect each student, usually through psychological tests. Staff then customize the group sessions to address those issues. Once the underlying issues are identified, students are asked to generate solutions to their barriers, Brunson said. Instructors help students during the course of the class to implement those solutions, she added.
One exercise involves having the students present news articles to the class, identifying the argument and subtle biases. This can foster debate in which students learn to express their opinions and listen to others. Brunson said these skills help break down the “the system is against me” attitude that many of her students hold. By working in teams, students learn about building mutual trust and respect, Brunson said.
Students also learn about speech, diet, parenting and other skills that don’t seem directly related to success in manual labor. Foster said these skills are invaluable to the training program and will be vital to Second Chance’s students throughout their careers.
“It’s not only about the skills you bring to the job–”it’s about the attitude you bring,” Foster said. “It’s really about how you get along with others in life.”
Evans said this is why Second Chance’s graduates are so successful. “I wouldn’t recommend any training program without it,” he said.
Each year, seven to 10 people enter Second Chance’s training program. Usually, five graduate and secure a job. But in the most recent training class, all eight students graduated.
More than three dozen students have graduated from the program during the six years it has operated, with each student completing the required 640 hours of training. Students are guaranteed jobs with the organization upon completion of the program, and many have taken the skills they’ve learned and moved on to other green positions.
Two students from Second Chance’s first training class stuck with the organization and are now in salaried positions overseeing deconstruction teams on job sites throughout the area.
“The important thing to notice is that all the training in the world isn’t going to help if there’s no job waiting at the end,” Foster said.
Foster said green jobs are perfect for challenged populations–”including exoffenders and people with limited work experience–”because they present an opportunity to enter a career track.
“We’ve had a lot of success with those kinds of challenged populations,” Foster said. “We want to do more, and green jobs overall are ones in which the wages are there so it’s an attractive situation for those to complete the training.”