NYC Looks to Environmentally Friendly Jobs in a Cloudy Economic Climate
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.
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 community. 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.”
Soler says he’s proud of his high safety rating, and hopes to be promoted to fleet leader and oversee a team. For now, he’s savoring the thought of having a job with benefits for the first time.
“Prior to this, it’s always been, I didn’t know where my future was headed,” he said. “This actually gave me an opportunity to show my work without being judged and actually provide for my family.”
Opportunity Meets Preparation
Tyler Kennedy is leader of a crew subcontracted on a project to replace decades-old ventilation units with new, more efficient ones across 80 New York City Housing Authority buildings. The work started in November 2020 and is supposed to be done by the end of this month.
Kennedy, 28, and four members of his team clean ducts and haul out old equipment while working alongside HVAC experts and union electricians — which opens the possibility of entering union pre-apprenticeship programs.
“This kind of work has been great because it’s helped us engage with other trades,” he said on a recent Friday at the King Towers in Harlem, the crew’s 70th site. “Working with an electrician, you pick up things that they do.”
Kennedy and his crew are all graduates of Green City Force, a nonprofit that teaches 18- to 24-year-old NYCHA residents about sustainability through hands-on projects that serve their communities.
For six months, 50 recruits work on “eco-hubs” the Green City Force runs at five NYCHA developments. Those hubs are urban farms as large as two acres, overseen by graduates of the program.
After that training — which can include support with health care, child care and transportation — the recruits go on to work in entry-level jobs and receive further training or subcontract on projects, like what Kennedy has been doing for the last several years.
The work that the program has set him up with has included performing energy audits inside NYCHA apartments and installing LED light bulbs and more efficient showerheads.
Joshua Owens, himself a graduate of the program and Green City Force’s director of social enterprise operations, promoted Kennedy to crew leader in 2018.
“He’s like my number two,” said Owens, 29, who runs three other subcontract projects. “Tyler works with me in coordination to just let me know what’s going on.”
As a crew leader, Kennedy now makes $27 an hour — a far cry from the sub-$10-per-hour jobs he worked in the time between finishing high school and joining Green City Force. He’s also taking an electrical training course through the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and he recently took a test to become a building analyst.
“I’ve just been trying to gain a lot of knowledge, gain a lot of information, a lot of certifications, so that I could choose my next field of work,” he said.
Green City Force is set to be there to support him on the next steps, whatever they may be, said Executive Director Tonya Gayle.
“When you’re dealing with folks who have been historically and systematically blocked out of opportunity, you have to come real about what the wraparound and support services needs are in order to position people for success,” she said.
“Everybody isn’t always afforded these opportunities,” Kennedy said. “I’m trying to take advantage of what my work has given me, what my effort has given me.”
‘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.
Growing up, his dad taught him about how electricity worked by showing him the wires in cars and in their home.
Now, with the internship on the horizon, he said he looks forward to “making a change for the world” in light of “how the earth is falling apart.”
“I would like for more people to get involved, stop using things that are harmful to the earth, like gas. The sun is energy that is reusable and brings value for those who use it,” said Perez.