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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Building Buy-In For Green Jobs Seen As Path To Climate Resilience and Racial Equity In Milwaukee

Susan Bence
WI DNR Secretary Preston Cole and Dairyland Energy Solutions owner Chris Martinez were among the panelists at the Aug. 24 future of green jobs program in Milwaukee.

For almost two years, a local task force has been brainstorming about some profound challenges: how to mitigate the impacts of climate change while addressing environmental justice.

The Milwaukee City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity sees green jobs as central to bringing change.

READ Milwaukee City-County Task Force Asks Community To Push For Climate & Equity Action

The group hopes federal relief funds coupled with buy-in from residents will propel Milwaukee’s success.

Based on the turnout at the first step into outreach, the task force has as long way to go to engage the community.

Erick Shambarger addressed the handful of people scattered throughout the main hall of the Wisconsin Black Historical Society August 24.

Shambarger heads the city’s Environmental Collaboration Office and serves on the city-county climate task force.

He introduced panelists ready to share their experience in the green job sector.

“We have established goals, which is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions in the community 45% by 2030,” Shambarger said.

But climate change isn’t Milwaukee’s only challenge.

“We have to do a much better job of having household incomes for people of color being on par with white families,” Shambarger said.

Shambarger says it will take a bevy of workers to green up the city, starting with retrofitting homes with energy efficiencies.

“At a minimum, these green jobs should allow somebody with an annual income of about $40,000 a year,” Shambarger said.

Susan Bence
Milwaukee business owner Chris Martinez's team comes up with energy solutions for places like Tippecanoe Library. Martinez calls the journeyman apprenticeship program a career escalator.

Panelist Chris Martinez said these aren’t just jobs, they’re careers.

The Milwaukee native started his electrical business 23 years ago with one employee – himself. Today Martinez employs more than 30 and is active in the local electrical union’s apprenticeship program.

Martinez said it works like an escalator.

“So once you get on the escalator, you make your grades in school, you have your hours on the jobs site. Incrementally you’re making 100% of those journeymen wages,” Martinez added, “People can enter as a young person, earn a sustainable wage, get benefits and have a retirement in the future.”

Susan Bence
Journeyman plumber Demetrius Thompson as developed expertise in specialized hospital and clinic projects. He also teaches apprentices. Thompson says he want to bring opportunity for anyone in the inner city; sometimes you just need someone you look like or you can relate to and then you’ll listen and be more attentive

Electricians will be vital to Milwaukee’s future. So will plumbers, journeyman Demetrius Thompson told the audience.

“We retrofit shower heads, faucets, toilets to conserve and use less water per flush, or less gallons per minutes. There’s gray water systems you can actually install in your house to reuse sink water, shower water, you can flush toilets with those. Those are systems that can be implemented in the long run, it’ll save and help everybody," Thompson said.

DNR secretary Preston Cole was there to talk up another vital trade — that of arborists —but looking out at lots of empty chairs in front of him, Cole couldn’t hold back his frustration.

“I would have loved to have seen 35 young kids in here,” Cole lamented.

As for the role of arborists, Cole said, “Arboriculture is one of the fastest growing fields. There’s about 60,000 vacancies nationwide with another 60,000 in Europe,” Cole wondered out loud, “Who’s going to be recruiting these young men and women?"

One young professional was there, and had questions. Bree Jackson works with Groundwork Milwaukee.

“I hold a position of leadership in green jobs and education here in Milwaukee. What relationships, if any, that you all have with nonprofit organizations within the city who have youth and are looking to create pipelines into these jobs?” Jackson asked.

Susan Bence
Electrician journeyman Michele Robinson says the idea some people have that if you’re never going to amount to anything, you should go into the trades is kind of comical, because you have to do a lot of on-your-feet problem solving and you have to be able to interpret and communicate with a variety of people; and you have to be able to do that well.

Journeyman electrician Michele Robinson jumped to respond.

“As he was saying, like the kids aren’t going to come to us, but sometimes we also don’t know where they are. And so creating that kind of connection and pipeline is just you being here, and exchanging information, that’s the beginning, right?" Robinson asked.

Erick Shambarger of the city’s Environmental Collaboration Office and city-county climate task force echoed the desire to connect with organizations like Groundwork Milwaukee.

“If you found a way to get people excited about these jobs, great! The (DNR) secretary’s right, the next meeting should have 30 people. We want to say – if you want to get into the electrical trades, here’s where you go, if you want to learn a building science, here’s the program at MATC, if you want to get into home energy efficiency here’s where to go and here’s the employers that you get hooked up with,”Shambarger added, “We’re developing that and we want to work with you very closely on that.”

Thursday morning, a Milwaukee Common Council committee will consider a proposal to funnel $2.7 million of Milwaukee’s allotment of American Rescue Plan funding to cultivate green energy jobs, and to spend another chunk on low-income energy efficiency projects.

Shambarger said each step — and pocket of money — is critical.

“We’ve got to be ready for the American Jobs Plan and if that money comes, we’ve got to be ready to go. We can’t sit around three years, we need the shovel-ready jobs and get it going."

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Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.
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