No worker left behind

By now, almost every one of us has heard of green jobs.  It's quickly becoming the national - and global - mantra that carries with it the promise of pulling us out of this downward spiral of economic and environmental degradation.

Earlier this month, a coalition of groups including NRDC, hosted a national conference in Washington, DC on green jobs and lobbied congress to incorporate green jobs in to the stimulus package.  Now the package has been passed and green jobs seem to be quickly becoming more of a reality for us. Training programs will be put in place designed to help blue collar workers get the training they need to be a part of the new green economy.

Now, I'm a big supporter of this new push but I have to raise an issue that has quickly become evident to me: unless we move forward carefully, Latino workers will be left behind. By now, we recognize that many of these green jobs will be created through investments in retrofitting buildings, expanding mass transit and freight rail, constructing smart energy grids, and expanding production of renewable energy such as wind power, solar power, and advanced bio-fuels.  Most of these sectors already employ large numbers of Latinos. In fact, U.S. Hispanics comprise a large share of construction workers -- 2.7 million or 25 percent. As such they have been seriously hurt by the economic downturn in construction. "Due mainly to a slump in the construction industry," the Pew Hispanic Research Center says, "the unemployment rate for Hispanics in the U.S. rose to 6.5 percent in the first quarter of 2008, well above the 4.7 percent rate for all non-Hispanics." A number that had risen to 8 percent by the end of the year.

Most green-collar jobs are well within reach for Latinos who are in these fields. However, the green economy will demand workers with new skills. Most of the people who are currently in the construction field have not installed a solar array or learned the ins and outs of weatherizing an old building. They do, however have the skills behind these. Blue collar Latino workers can learn new skills and adapt current skills to fit new challenges and will because, with Latinos, where there's a will, there's a way - hence the now highly popular Cesar Chavez slogan - ¡Sí, se puede! - Yes, we can!

So, at this intersection where we're talking about green jobs and developing and investing in creating new training programs and retooling existing training programs to meet the demand, we must not leave this group behind and since Latinos currently do not play a role in the green-collar jobs movement, something must be done. 

It was a proud moment for me when I learned that Democratic Rep. Hilda Solis of California would be President Obama's pick for labor secretary. Having worked with now Secretary Solis when writing our report, Hidden Danger Environmental Health Threats in the Latino Community , I know her commitment to the environment will ensure a robust, green workforce within her capacity. But with all the money waiting to be spent, and all the people who will be charged with spending it, it will take work to ensure this happens correctly.  

We must ensure that training programs employ a culturally resonant approach if we are to mobilize Latinos.  This means talking to Latinos in their language offering training programs in both Spanish and English. Simply assuming that Latinos fall under the purview of "communities of color" misses the point that we are a multifaceted group and not simply another low-income community. Additionally, because Latinos have not been as integrated in to the mainstream environmental movement, there is a bit of a learning curve that must be addresses. Training programs will have to provide some background to develop a baseline of environmental knowledge so that workers understand the whys behind the new ways of doing things. And finally, we must remember to include the Latino community in green job fairs and provide access to information on how to find the opportunities out there.

Latinos in this country have never shied away from work and this will not change with the green jobs wave. Removing the barriers that exist will ensure that no worker is left behind.