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NYC Looks to Environmentally Friendly Jobs

March 11, 2022 Samantha Maldonado, THE CITY
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Logo for THE CITYThis article was originally published on by THE CITY.

Creating more employment opportunities that also tackle climate change could be the way to a cleaner and more financially sound future for the city and many of its least privileged residents.

New York City may be on the cusp of discovering if green begets green.

Two years into the pandemic, the city is facing challenges on all sides as it struggles to revive its economy, which lags behind other areas of the country, while also dealing with the worsening effects of climate change.

But the city has a rare chance to build a clean energy economy and capitalize on an influx of federal funds to get workers in hundreds of thousands of new green jobs, according to experts and labor leaders.

“We see this as a unique opportunity [where] we can address two crises at the same time: one is the climate crisis, the other is the crisis of inequity,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, which runs four apprenticeship programs.

Climate change often leaves low-income, non-white communities disproportionately vulnerable, experts note. For example, ​​Black people in America, for example, are 40% more likely than others to live in places with the highest projected jumps in deaths related to extreme temperature, according to the EPA.

Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are seeing higher rates of unemployment, according to research from New School economist James Parrott.

“Green jobs, that’s an obvious place where a recovery strategy can lean into trends that are already at work,” Parrott said.

That strategy, he said, will require a long-term, targeted approach that trains workers for — and employs them in — the jobs and industries that will be in demand, with collaboration among the public and private sectors, unions and local community groups.

The state’s Just Transition Working Group estimated in a 2021 report that more than 211,000 green jobs could be created by 2030 as a result of climate policies, with solar, offshore wind, building electrification and manufacturing expected to be the top-growing sectors.

Josue Perez (left), of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. and other students in a solar installation training program last summer.
Photo courtesy of Josue Perez

Solving Multiple Problems at Once

Mayor Eric Adams has said he wants employment to be a signature part of his climate platform (increasing jobs for young people is also a key part of his public safety plan).

“We’re not thinking about young, Black and brown, immigrant communities. I want them employed,” he said in January. “As we fix the environment, we need to fix their economy and their economic opportunities. That’s crucial to me.”

But without a strong, targeted strategy backed by the requisite funding, the city risks a prolonged economic downturn, continued double-digit unemployment rates for Black New Yorkers and environmental calamity.

A slew of organizations are already doing the work around the city and state, and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority backs existing workforce development and training programs.

And climate-focused policies are increasingly directing the way the city and state spends money: New York is poised to become a hub of the offshore wind industry in a bid to lessen its reliance on fossil fuels. A deadline for buildings in the city to become more efficient in compliance with carbon emission limits is fast approaching. Electric vehicles and the charging networks they require are increasing at a clip.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement to THE CITY she wants the state to “be the blueprint for how the transition to clean energy can bring green jobs and economic opportunity for workers who have been left behind.”

“We have to think about the ways in which we can change the entire system and the structures that are in place,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of the organization ALIGN, a union-funded group promoting green jobs. In Oct. 2020, they came up with a three-year pandemic economic recovery plan that proposed investing $16.2 billion to equitably advance climate action and create over 100,000 jobs.

‘I Didn’t Know Where My Future Was Headed’

Andre Soler spends his afternoons and evenings driving in a Toyota Prius outfitted with sensors that measure methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants. He works for the company Aclima, which maps air pollution at the street level.

Soler, 37, travels from his Richmond Hill, Queens, home to the garage in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, to work a late shift after spending most of the day with his 2-year-old son.

It was a tough road to get there. He went to prison at 17 on an attempted murder conviction, and didn’t get out until he was 30. After a parole violation, he went back in for two years, to be released in 2018. Work was hard to find with his criminal background.

“I possess a lot of good qualities that most employees would love to have within their company. The problem just has always been that I don’t get the opportunity to display my talents or display my skills with no employer because they [were] so reluctant to hire me,” he said. “It was kind of discouraging.”

In September, Soler received paid job training through BlocPower’s Civilian Climate Corps, a program that initially sought to engage people from communities at high risk of gun violence.

BlocPower set him up with workplace safety training. From there, he worked with the company Tauris Tech to learn HVAC work during the renovation of a VFW post.

“I gave that training period 200%,” he said of the effort he put into it.

Since July, BlocPower has trained through its programs about 1,500 New York City residents in weatherization, electric vehicle charging maintenance and HVAC, solar, and Wi-Fi installation.

“We see this as the beginning of a process of what … a clean energy workforce looks like in terms of a just transition and building out career paths,” said Keith Kinch, BlocPower’s general manager.

Two months into Soler’s work with Tauris, BlocPower reached out to tell him about driving for Aclima.

The goal for Aclima is to understand where air pollution comes from and who it affects, all in order to ultimately reduce emissions.

“They’ll make you aware of how literally, from one block to the next block, there can be such drastic changes in the quality of the air,” he said. “The data could be used to enforce some changes, so it’s rewarding in that sense.”

He’ll be staying on for the foreseeable future, now that Aclima offered him a full-time job.

“This is like an epitome of what is possible when you invest in climate action,” said Davida Herzl, Aclima’s CEO. “You can really lift people up by reducing emissions on multiple fronts, and this is one of them.”

‘I Had to Step Up’

Josue Perez’s fear of heights isn’t stopping him from pursuing a career in the solar industry, one of the fastest-growing industries in the state.

Perez, 20, climbed onto a roof to learn about solar installations as part of a program last summer run by the RETI Center, a Red Hook based nonprofit, in partnership with Brooklyn SolarWorks.

“I had to step up, basically. I was terrified, but I would still try to push myself,” he said. “I guess the way I’m trying to confront the challenge is by trying to create a better world.”

Perez, who lives in Sunset Park, last year graduated from West Brooklyn Community High School, which he credits for giving him a “second chance” after he fell behind at his previous high school.

Perez and 14 other high school students received 35 hours of solar installation “pre-training” with SolarWorks, learning about the tools needed to build panels and how to measure the arrays on a roof.

He also interned for RETI, helping to build gardens and maintaining a barge that is essentially an outdoor, floating classroom.

“It was very hands-on work and it was about understanding our relationship to the water and new possibilities of the marine industry,” said Tim Gilman, RETI’s executive director. “He was great to work with.”

Perez recently finished federal safety training and will be starting a full-time internship with the company this month, which could result in a job if all goes well.

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