Last Saturday, two stories about green jobs caught my eye. One was in the Washington Post and the other in the Seattle Times.  The Post article was a hand-wringing affair about the failure of energy efficiency efforts funded by stimulus dollars to create any of the promised green jobs. The Times article was a bit more positive, reporting about a training program I wrote about in a post titled Labor Sees Green Job Opportunity. The Times piece highlighted the first graduates of the program, created by the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) to train weatherization workers. But the Times piece also asked the crucial question of one of the graduates, “will you be able to get a job?”

The graduate, Ahmalik Claiborne, answered, “I’m sure I can get a job . . . We are at the start of something good.” Not everyone is so optimistic. But it is important for our region’s problem solvers not to give in to pessimism. The fact is, our region is ahead of the rest of the country and getting green jobs right is better than getting them right now.

The Post piece deserves a response. First, in our region, as I wrote recently (Oregon’s Energy Policies Stimulate High Ranking), states and local governments have already been doing work in weatherization and energy efficiency. These measures account for Oregon and Washington’s consistently high ratings by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.  The Post article focuses on some irresponsible use of weatherization dollars in Indiana (a sweetheart deal for a local contractor) and false starts in Virginia.

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  • The central thesis of the article is in this paragraph:

    Nine months after Congress passed the $787 billion stimulus package, there is little tangible to show for one of its biggest single areas of investment, the $25 billion energy-efficiency effort. That points to one of the central tensions of President Obama’s landmark stimulus package: His goal was to inject money quickly into the economy while at the same time laying the groundwork for his broader, transformational agenda on energy, education and health care.

    And what is at stake for green jobs and our economy is articulated perfectly in the next paragraph.

    Officials overseeing the energy-efficiency effort want to fundamentally alter the way the country uses energy. They are trying to craft initiatives that will produce real savings to build the case for continued private or public investment. And they are putting safeguards in place to avoid any spending scandals that could tarnish the effort.

    What the article gets wrong is that the choice isn’t between creating jobs now and total failure of the effort. The truth is that if there isn’t a careful alignment of the multiple and fragmented interests in the energy efficiency economy, there is a good chance stimulus money won’t lead to long lasting green jobs. Sure, local and state governments could easily put all that money to work immediately by developing, for example, a crash course for thousands of unemployed workers in auditing buildings, then turn them loose on every building in sight. All that would yield is a lot of questionable audits without the necessary financing and project management in place to support households and businesses to take the next step of actually retrofitting their home or business. And what would those auditors do for work once the audits are done?

    Training (Green Collar Jobs Start With Basic Skills), effective financing models (Portland Finds Our How Clean Energy Works) and managing the projects well (Color of Money) are important elements to line up so that demand is created and sustained and workers are trained for career ladder jobs. Projects with the potential to address these critical connections are getting started in our region, and now is not the time to slow the effort. But rushing ahead recklessly isn’t the answer either.

    I will let Bob Peck the commissioner of public buildings, quoted in the Post article, have the last word.

    “Is it possible or reasonable to think that the stimulus package could have moved faster moving into winter? I don’t know . . . But if you step back a couple feet and say, ‘where do we need to be in five years,’ then the steps we’re taking now are exactly right.”