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Finding the Green in Obama’s Plan

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In President Obama’s presentation of his jobs program, green opportunities were not a highlight. But for job seekers and communities alike, there’s more potential than we may realize. It comes into view when we look at the two specific areas of investment that the President called for: fixing up schools and infrastructure.

Green schools are growing in popularity because they are high-performance schools. They are resource-efficient, with healthy indoor environments, attracting good teachers and enhancing student performance. Global Green USA estimates that in Los Angeles alone, building 34 new green schools will reduce 94,000 tons of CO2 or the equivalent of eliminating more than 15,000 cars from the road every year or planting more than 280,000 trees!

Suppose all 35,000 schools targeted by the President are upgraded. That’s an average of 700 per state receiving repairs big and small. That won’t fund an army but it will fund quite a few battalions of contractors and suppliers. How likely is it that many of them will be green? McGraw-Hill Construction estimates that such projects totaled $16 billion in 2010, up from $9 billion in 2008. That’s more than a third of school construction activity, according to Jonathan Hiskes, who outlines the benefits from healthier air to better lighting for learning in Sustainable Industries.

America’s schools need every imaginable kind of repair, opening the door to job opportunities using green products and methods for roofing, lighting, flooring, painting, windows, cabinetry, cafeterias, paving, playground landscaping, appliances, educational software and smart classrooms, heating and cooling, power generation and more. Across this spectrum of work, there will be a need for contractors, architects, engineers, landscape architects, contract administrators and other professionals.

If a school system’s leaders are well educated about the benefits of green practices in improving test scores and retaining teachers, there are a series of relatively easy steps that make natural sense as part of any renovation, according to prominent architect Bob Berkebile who notes that “Many older schools were designed for daylighting. It’s relatively easy to take advantage of this, and to control for moisture, reduce toxics, and landscape with local plants that are hardy, beautiful and contribute to water management and air quality. Do these things, and the school facility becomes part of the teaching. This can be a very smart, highly leveraged, catalytic civic investment.”

These opportunities will not emerge neatly or predictably. Newbies in these fields will be competing with laid-off workers hoping to get re-hired. Remember that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was passed in 2009, and funds flowed from the Feds to the states to local projects at a glacial pace over the next two years! Some jobs may be newly created; at least as many others will be stabilized or expanded. Firms may not completely re-hire their laid-off work forces based on school upgrades alone; but they will be strengthened enough by these contracts, to bid on additional work.

The same logic applies to finding the green opportunities in infrastructure upgrades. The need is huge, for road and bridge improvements, wastewater and stormwater management, and mass transit, for starters. These diverse fields each have areas of green advantage, from pervious pavement to decentralized stormwater management systems that help thirsty land to retain water. A national survey of barriers and opportunities to green infrastructure, released September 14, identified 4 kinds of challenges needing to be addressed to make green infrastructure approaches mainstream:
• Technical and physical, including professionals’ lack of familiarity;
• Legal and regulatory barriers to unfamiliar approaches;
• Financial – first costs (sometimes) even when savings are huge;
• Community and Institutional – primarily inadequate information and lack of passionate advocacy!

Much of the work to be done is part of capital projects that have already been planned, budgeted and sometimes designed, by local and state authorities that have been looking for funding forever. In these domains, it won’t always be possible to make the case for greener alternatives — but sometimes it will. In cities like Philadelphia, where climate preparedness has been mainstreamed, the opportunities could be quite significant. Engineers, landscape architects, planners, attorneys and contractors will all be needed. So will suppliers of materials and products.

If you’re looking to take any of those skills into a greener mode of practice, the slow economy is a great time for career development through self-teaching or formal programs like the National Sustainable Building Advisor 8 month certificate program. These trainings can be found at many community colleges and bring together a diverse range of professionals for cross-fertilization.

How do you identify the places where school and infrastructure upgrades are likely to create jobs in some shade of green?
• Look for states with climate and energy action plans.
• Look for municipalities that have taken the lead, such as members of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability.
• Look for schools that are partnering with leading programs like Collaborative High-Performance Schools (CHPS)
• Look for major transit initiatives already proposed and planned in your region.

When you find a potential match, the trick is to sell the benefits of green approaches while marketing yourself as a problem-solver who can make innovation practical. Opportunities will go to those who can sell their skillsets as implementers first, with the added value of green expertise.

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Written by melissaeverett

September 19, 2011 at 12:42 pm

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