Green-Collar Jobs: Energy Bill includes Christmas present for nation's job seekers

This week, the federal government passed an energy bill that left many environmental activists somewhat disappointed. In the face of mounting evidence of a looming climate catastrophe, they were hoping for much bolder action from the nation's lawmakers.

So was I. But tucked into the new law, there were at least TWO provisions that should give everyone something to cheer about: the Green Jobs Act and its new (green) Pathways Out Of Poverty program.

Both are now law in America. (Of course, they await full funding allocation by Congress next year.) The inclusion of these two new programs gives the nation's low-income job seekers a good reason and real chance to climb on board the growing "green" bandwagon.

Signed into law this week, the Energy Independence and Security Act incorporates the Green Jobs Act of 2007, which authorizes $125 million in green-collar job training opportunities. That's enough money to train about 30,000 workers a year for jobs in emerging "green" sectors (like the solar and wind industries, green building construction, bio-fuel production and more).

And the new law authorizes 20 percent of the Green Jobs Act funds to support a green Pathways Out of Poverty Program. These grants will provide targeted resources and support to low-income individuals who have the greatest need for training and career pathways in the clean energy economy.

The Green Jobs Act is critical to the development of a workforce capable of meeting the needs of the future. Once Congress allocates the funds, this law will provide the resources and infrastructure necessary to educate and train a new generation of workers in the renewable and clean energy jobs.

Many grassroots and advocacy groups worked hard all year to achieve this victory, including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, the Apollo Alliance, the Workforce Alliance, the Center for American Progress, the Energy Action Coalition and Green For All. (Full disclosure: I am a founder of both EBC and Green For All.) And the act's provisions were inspired by the local successes of grassroots organizations like Sustainable South Bronx, People's Grocery, the Green Workers' Cooperatives and Solar Richmond.

But much of the final credit for the triumph must go to a dedicated group of lawmakers who were committed in 2007 to giving everyone a slice of the growing green pie.

In fact, in the U.S. House of Representatives, a new force appears to be quietly emerging. Call it the "green opportunity caucus." Its stalwarts include: Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller; House Global Warming Select Committee Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) and; Green Jobs Act co-sponsors Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA) and Rep. John Tierney (D-MA).

Add to that list Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been particularly steadfast and vocal, and the nation has a powerful force - dedicated to distributing more broadly the economic benefits of a greener and cleaner economy.

On the U.S. Senate side, though, the sledding has been a bit tougher. Fortunately, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) to convince that august body to support the Green Jobs Act, as a part of the energy bill.

Going forward, Sanders can be expected to lead the charge next year for full funding of the program. And presidential hopeful Clinton, whose stump speeches now boast multiple references to green-collar jobs, will be working hard to expand the green tent.

On the House side, it is Solis who has emerged as perhaps the most consistent, vocal and passionate champion of the need to connect low-income workers with the green economy. That is a welcome development, surprising to no one.

Solis has been a lifelong activist on both environmental health and social justice concerns. A nationally admired Latina leader, she was the first woman legislator to win the JFK "Profiles In Courage" award, for her environmental justice advocacy in the California legislature.

To quote Solis herself: "This bill recognizes that energy policy is not only about improving infrastructure, but also about increasing economic opportunities. Major investments in renewable energy could create three million green jobs over 10 years. These jobs can lead to self-sufficiency and prosperity through higher wages, access to benefits and more career choices."

Solis said further: "These are jobs that will stay in the United States! I am proud that this bill authorizes $125 million for workforce training in green collar jobs. It includes Pathways Out of Poverty grants, so that as Silicon Valley advances - so do workers in East Los Angeles and the Bronx."

To be sure, advocates for low-income job seekers still have a long way to go. For one thing, in our system, authorization is just the first step. Next year, lawmakers and advocates still must win full allocation of all those funds.

Beyond that, we must also begin work on a much bigger and more comprehensive Green Jobs II act, which will be able to build upon and take to scale the lessons from these early grants. America will have to train and retrain millions of workers and job seekers in clean energy trades. The Green Jobs Act of 2007 represents just a first step - a small down-payment on the massive, necessary commitment.

So two cheers for the energy bill, overall. But THREE cheers for all the advocates, grassroots activists and Congressional leaders who have begun chopping holes in the "green ceiling" for the nation's low-income job seekers.

As Solis says: "This bill says to America's workers, particularly those in both urban and rural underserved communities - 'there is a place for you in the green economy.'"