istock green collar workersConverting the Pacific Northwest over the next few decades to a place of compact, walkable communities that run on superefficient, renewable energy system—a climate-safe economy—will be a lot of work: paid work. But for all the exciting announcements of solar jobs and green-tech investment that pepper the newspapers, the skill sets of today’s workers are not yet aligned with the needs of this future.

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  • In previous posts in this series, I have described three good uses for revenue from the auctioning of carbon permits: dividends for all, buffering the incomes of low-income families, and upgrading the energy efficiency of working families’ homes. A fourth good use for cap-and-trade auction revenue is to spend a portion of it training a green-collar workforce for the clean-energy trades. In many sectors of the economy right now, a limiting factor on seizing the opportunities of the new energy economy is a shortage of mid-skill labor. For example, low-income weatherization programs across the Pacific Northwest are currently crippled by a scarcity of crew chiefs qualified to supervise retrofits on job sites.

    A mid-skill worker is neither a laborer nor someone with a four-year degree. Rather, he or she is a tradesperson or technician, usually with an apprenticeship credential, an associate’s degree, or a vocational certificate. For unskilled, low-income workers, a pathway to mid-skill work is the best route out of poverty, but many obstacles loom. Finding the time and money to study is the day-to-day challenge. The larger challenge, not only for workers individually but for society’s poverty-reduction goals overall, is to integrate work with studies into a “career ladder” of steadily rising competence, experience, education, opportunity, and earnings.

    According to a study by the Community College Research Center, to grow green-collar jobs for disadvantaged, low-skill workers, auction revenue might best be spent on expanded public funding for narrowly focused training programs in community and technical colleges that lead to vocational certificates or degrees in the trades: carpenters trained in green building, plumbers capable of installing commercial-scale solar water heaters, electricians educated in photovoltaics and advanced energy-system controls, machinists who can produce windmill turbines and carbon-fiber aircraft parts, metalworkers skilled in forging bicycle frames and the ultralight components for the automobiles of the future, and forest managers knowledgeable about carbon sequestration.

    Such programs are already sprouting in two-year institutions around the Pacific Northwest. Columbia Gorge Community College now offers an electronics engineering technician program. Many graduates of the first cohort are already working in the wind industry, earning from $35,000 to $60,000 a year, according to the New York Times. Lane Community College, in Eugene, Oregon, trains renewable-energy technicians in a two-year program that teaches students how to improve the energy efficiency of homes and businesses and install solar-power and wind-power systems. In Washington, Bellevue Community College and Cascadia Community College offer similar programs.

    Still, for the clean-energy transition to become a chance for workers to achieve economic security, much more needs doing. The national organization Green For All has published the most detailed road map. Called Greener Pathways, it identifies the specific programs that northwesterners can use to build a ladder from poverty to climate-safe prosperity for low-skill workers.

    Many of these approaches are integrated well into Washington State’s 2008 Climate Action and Green Jobs Act. The law puts green-collar jobs at the center of the state’s response to climate change. It directs the state Employment Security Department to conduct a detailed assessment of green-collar job potential in the state and to identify jobs that pay family wages and could grow rapidly. The law also establishes a process for coordinating the assessment of, and planning for, workforce development needs in several industries through the creation of panels that include representatives of businesses, trade associations, labor unions, educational institutions, and others involved in the labor market. Finally, it authorizes a grant-funded set of investments in workforce training programs (typically, at community colleges) that target jobs prioritized by the industry-specific panels. This approach is a national model, because it so carefully targets public spending to training programs that actually help low-income workers get qualified for high-demand, family-wage jobs. Although the 2008 law authorizes the creation of training grants, the state has yet to fund them—an obvious use for carbon auction revenue.