Building a Green Economy Is No Overnight Feat

Chicago native Mario Brownlow, 31, is quick to proclaim his love of green-collar jobs and how they helped transform his life.

A few years ago, his world turned upside down after the death of his grandmother. Brownlow, a high school dropout, opted to sell drugs to help support himself and younger siblings. Before long, Brownlow was living with friends and family until he eventually became homeless and began battling alcoholism. After entering a drug treatment center, Brownlow got sober and connected with Growing Home Inc., a non-profit organic agricultural business that provides job training for impoverished individuals, helping him discover his passion for farming.

His life began to turn around. Brownlow earned his GED and completed a six-month landscaping job-training program in December with Greencorps Chicago, earning certification to do lead, asbestos, mold, and hazardous waste removal.  He’s now in the process of going to college to study horticulture. “This is a passion for me,” Brownlow says.

Several green-collar job training programs are aimed at individuals in urban and rural, low-income communities who were in similar predicaments as Brownlow. However, Brownlow says he, along with 32 graduates who completed the training course with him three months ago, have not been able to find jobs in their new fields, contributing to February’s 8.1% national unemployment rate.

“We have lots of training programs to hire people in our community to do the work but without the business to hire them, you have a lot of highly skilled people who don’t have any place to work,” says Omar Freilla, who six years ago created Green Worker Cooperatives, an organization dedicated to incubating worker-owned and environmentally friendly cooperatives in the South Bronx of New York City.  Freilla also developed the Coop Academy, a job training company that assists people with launching their own green-collar job ideas, and ReBuilders Source, an 18,000-square-foot worker-owned discount retailer cooperative of surplus and used building materials, also in the Bronx.

Green-collar jobs often are touted as the next economic boom, similar to the dot-com explosion that occurred during the 1990s. About $100 billion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will go toward green investments, which would create green employment opportunities.  While it’s no question that green jobs will play a vital role in powering economic recovery, the question on many minds is when and who will reap the benefits.

“It’s an evolutionary process. It’s not going to be real long process, but not short too,” says Jerome Ringo, president of Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, environmental, and community leaders, adding that there are some people who believe there’s going to be an explosion of green jobs in the next two weeks.