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October 2-8, 2023: WUWM and NPR are dedicating an entire week to stories and conversations about the search for climate solutions. This isn't just about "covering" the climate — it's meant to remind everyone that you can always do something.

How climate jobs can help Milwaukee tackle two big problems

a black man and white man work inside, with an electric tool and white painters tape
City of Milwaukee

About a year ago, Kevin Kane, the chief economist with Green Homeowners United, got swamped with calls.

“It was less than 24 hours before Thanksgiving. 3 p.m. on the 23rd or whatever it was,” Kane remembered. “We suddenly just started getting tons and tons of phone calls and inquiries all at the exact same moment.”

Heading into last winter, heating bills were expected to spike. We Energies told customers if they were concerned about their bills, they should get an energy assessment, which can make a house more energy-efficient.

We Energies had put the firm on their list for where customers could get such an assessment done. Kane recalled multiple clients telling him Green Homeowners United was the only business listed within 25 miles of them.

To Kane, the inbox full of voicemails was another sign that Wisconsin’s workforce isn’t ready for the necessary transition that will get the state off fossil fuels and get residents’ homes electrified. Especially when the state is poised to get an estimated $4 billion in federal investments for clean energy infrastructure. That’s from President Joe Biden’s sweeping climate bill.

“Under the new law, the Inflation Reduction Act, every home is now eligible for some form of  incentive,” Kane said. “Are we ready for that? No. There’s not enough energy assessors, there’s not enough workers.”

Behind the scenes, employers, unions, educational institutions, training providers, and municipalities are building partnerships to ensure that the next generation of Wisconsin workers can rise to the challenge. Not only to take advantage of federal money coming down the pipe, but also, crucially, to rein in planet-warming pollution.

“We’re focused on what the next generation of our workforce and our economy will look like, in terms of what careers and positions will be available in order to address some of the effects that we’re experiencing,” said Lindsay Blumer, president and CEO of the workforce intermediary Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Big Step, or WRTP/Big Step.

Listen to the full conversation with Lindsay Blumer, president and CEO of WRTP/Big Step.

An opportunity to tackle economic inequity

These jobs — electricians, HVAC technicians, insulation workers, and more — could tackle another persistent problem in Milwaukee: economic inequity. According to city data, Black residents are unemployed at twice the rate of white residents. And the median white family earns almost double what a Black family makes.

The city is making this a big part of its climate and equity plan, adopted by the Common Council in June. One of its hallmark initiatives is the Green Jobs Accelerator, which aims to create jobs that pay at least $40,000, with a focus on recruiting people of color and exposing youth to these career paths. It would also subsidize apprenticeships so trainees can earn wages while they’re enrolled, and work with MPS to expose young people to green careers. The city plans to fund this program through new federal investments.

As it is, according to county data, these jobs are overwhelmingly male and white. In Milwaukee County, for example, 97% of electricians are male, while 84% are white.

a chart with green jobs statistics for milwaukee county
Milwaukee County

Blumer is among those in workforce development thinking about how to welcome people of color and women into industries that they’ve been excluded from historically — something that will be necessary in order to fill open positions. The vast majority of clean energy employers in Wisconsin report some difficulty hiring workers.

Bringing new workers to the green jobs landscape could mean revamping training and curriculum to reflect the diverse ways that people relate to their jobs, communities, and the economy.

“When we think about a culturally competent curriculum, it means it’s informed by those who are themselves learning it,” Blumer said. “It is informed by the understanding that there’s a racial justice and gender economic component to it.”

She points out that climate change disproportionately affects communities of color. In Milwaukee, largely Black neighborhoods have poor tree cover and take the brunt of the heat island effect.

“If we can be [our] own solutions, in our own communities, I think there’s a vital, untapped workforce and exposure to youth and adults about these careers,” Blumer said. “Because we have a true connection to our community. We want to see our communities thrive.”

Being the climate solution in your own neighborhood

The nonprofit Northcott Neighborhood House runs an urban arborist pre-apprenticeship program that offers an example of what that could look like: career as climate solution. In partnership with the school, Northcott’s program prepares young people for an arborist apprenticeship course at Milwaukee Area Technical College.

Angelia Gatson, an employment specialist with Northcott, works with trainees, focusing on soft skills like getting trainees used to work schedules, reporting to a supervisor and working on a team.

“In Black and brown culture, sometimes the individual comes from a family whose parents, no one in the household ever had a job,” Gatson said. “So they don’t know what it’s like to hold a job down. We want to make them successful every step of the way. Not just getting them certified.”

Northcott supports the arborists-in-training through their coursework at MATC, and even after they’re employed.

Tony Kearney, Northcott’s executive director, said these opportunities mean a lot: “The fact that you’re beautifying your neighborhood and earning a living wage at the same time you’re doing it.”

But young people need to be exposed to these fields and supported, which takes investment. “There’s opportunity,” Kearney said. “What we have to effectively do is expose young people in the community to it.”

The city of Milwaukee recently received a $12 million federal urban forestry grant that will boost tree care work and jobs, and support the city’s green jobs initiative. Kearney said Northcott will be receiving funds from that grant to continue the pre-apprenticeship program.

Training for careers, not just jobs

A Green Homeowners United report released last week identified the residential “green and healthy home” market as the field with the most promising growth opportunities, work that includes insulation and energy efficiency, lead abatement and home energy assessments.

The report recommends prioritizing training in those sectors, as well as the creation of an apprenticeship program for residential laborers, along with wage and benefits standards for those jobs.

two men in hard hats install some insulation
U.S. Department of Energy
A Green Homeowners United report identified the residential “green and healthy home” market as the field with the most promising growth opportunities.

Presenting the report last week, Kevin Kane, the chief economist for Green Homeowners United, said their recommendations came down to “[making sure] that there is a career pathway for people to not just be blowing insulation or abating lead paint for the next 20 years. How do you grow into your work to eventually be program managers or company owners?”

Kane said the firm has been working with the LiUNA laborers union to develop training. “These are the kinds of jobs that can be done by laborers, and they’ve been very interested in turning these residential jobs into real, family-supporting careers,” he said.

As we prepare young people to enter the green workforce, Lindsay Blumer, from WRTP/Big Step, noted her approach is not just about jobs.

“The infrastructure we build in the next five years to a decade will need to be maintained,” she said. “It will need to be upgraded. And who knows, after a decade, what new technologies will emerge.”

Our society has immediate needs, Blumer said, but people should be familiarized with educational systems and trained with skills that they can take into the future. It’s about setting people up for a lifetime of learning — so we’re ready to tackle whatever challenges that climate change brings.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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