Well, I’m back home from the Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference last week in Pittsburgh, and I’ve digested the speeches, the workshops, the press conferences, and the two major reports released at the event: “Green Collar Jobs in America’s Cities [PDF]: Building Pathways out of Poverty and Careers in the Clean Energy Economy” and “Greener Pathways [PDF]: Jobs and Workforce Development in the Clean Energy Economy.”

I’m tempted to say, “Read these fantastic reports,” and sign off. They’re really good, and the main points will soon be showing up in town halls and governors’ offices — and as unreferenced insights in undergraduate term papers all over the country. Hats off to the authors of the two reports: Bracken Hendricks (Center for American Progress), Sarah White (Center on Wisconsin Strategy), Jeremy Hays and Jason Walsh (Green for All), and Kate Gordon (Apollo Alliance). So spend the time and read them now; you won’t regret it.

As promised, I’ve also returned with responses to the questions that some of you asked before and after the event, including:

  1. What happened at the conference? Who was there?
  2. How are “green” and “green collar” jobs being defined?
  3. What are the main barriers to the development of green jobs in large numbers?
  4. What can be done to help low-income people gain good, green employment?
  5. What exactly did “Kristen” do with Spitzer that was worth so much money? (Just kidding!)

You want answers, and answers you shall have in a series of posts. Here’s the first:

What happened at the conference? Who was there?

Before I talk details, I want to say that I’m feeling inspired right now in a way that I haven’t been in a long time. I went to Pittsburgh on a Thursday morning looking for data and definitions for Gristy green-job seekers — that’s my beat. I flew home on a Friday night as part of a national movement for fundamental change. Who knew?

To review: The gathering was organized by the BlueGreen Alliance, a “strategic partnership” of the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers Union. BlueGreen worked with the Apollo Alliance, Green for All, Center for American Progress, the Workforce Alliance, the Center for Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), and over 70 other conveners, none of which has an acronym nearly as cool as COWS.

The leaders in this coalition were instrumental in driving Congress to pass the Green Jobs Act of 2007 [PDF], and they’re hungry for more wins at the local, state, and federal levels. They think they’re onto something that really works for people and nature, and it feels like they might be right.

This event was an interesting kind of animal. Think wonky policy conference meets political revival meeting with a campaign organizing session spliced in. There were PowerPoint presentations galore, of course. But there were some great sermons as well — especially a Friday morning speech by Green for All President Van Jones that people will be talking about for a long time — or at least until the next amazing Van Jones speech. Want support for your local green jobs initiative? Invite Van Jones to town now.

Talk about the audacity of hope: There is a lot of hope riding on renewables and retrofits. Hope for reversing global climate change. Hope for pathways out of poverty. Hope for a re-energized manufacturing sector with union labor. Hope for “revolutionary change through a new movement and a permanent coalition capable of governing this country for decades.” Amen to that, but whoa, that’s a lot of hope to pile onto wind turbines and solar cells.

Among the particularly good hope-mongers issuing calls to action and sharing some initial success stories were Minneapolis mayor R.T. Ryback; Allegheny County commissioner Dan Onorato; Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-Minn.); Lois Quam, the managing director of alternative investments at Piper Jaffray; a wonderfully feisty Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund; Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); Architecture 2030 Executive Director Ed Mazria; and Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Penn.).

The presence of creative elected officials who have won victories with voters precisely by talking and walking green gave a lot of us hope. Note to Grist job-seekers on a career path to job titles like commissioner, mayor, representative, and senator: Go green. It’s a winner.

For a conference that was selling the idea of a rapidly growing market for green employees, there were remarkably few private sector employers there. Spanish wind energy company Gamesa, which employs hundreds of people at new plants in Pennsylvania, talked up their hiring record and called out “We need welders!” We weren’t sure if it was a call-and-response kind of thing, so we just clapped our hands.

An underappreciated but potentially more powerful story came from Joy Clarke-Holmes, Director of Public Sector Markets at Johnson Controls. Clarke-Holmes could be a corporate poster child for the green jobs movement. She announced that Johnson Controls was organizing community partnerships with activists and community colleges to recruit and train people for up to 60,000 new, permanent, energy-efficiency-related jobs in fewer than ten years.

Three main tracks for green jobs movement workers

The real work in Pittsburgh was done in the 18 breakout sessions and in the attached strategy meetings held for Sierra Club members, Apollo Alliance folks, and the local BlueGreen Alliance. It seemed to me that there were three major tracks going on.

Track One: Green Job Creation was for people who want to use the power of government to prime the pump of “green” job creation. The idea here is that market forces alone won’t be enough to push us quickly toward a carbon-neutral economy, and we won’t get the expected growth in “green” jobs. Creative government action is needed now to goose the process along.

Elected officials, activists, think-tank types, and economic development specialists shared ideas about policy innovations and investments to deal with the problem. And then swapped stories about generating the political coalitions needed to pass them, and about grant programs, bond issues, and other sources of money to finance them.

And what are some of the “innovative policies and investments” that were discussed, you might ask? My notes include:

  • Renewable energy portfolio standards
  • Expansion of bus, subway, and light-rail systems
  • “Smart growth” land-use policies
  • Retrofitting old (and building new) public buildings to LEED certification standards
  • Green building codes and energy conservation ordinances
  • Helping building owners to invest in efficiency and renewable energy with tax breaks or direct financial incentives
  • Streamlining permit processes
  • Converting government fleets to run on alternative fuels
  • Green business incubator facilities
  • Traditional assistance to encourage manufacturing facilities to come to your town

Track Two: Green Job Education was aimed at recruiting and training people for green jobs so that there will be a ready workforce to fill expanding payrolls. In keeping with the movement’s focus on helping low-income people, people of color, and people with “barriers to employment” such as former inmates, there was a heavy focus on targeting training, employment, and workforce-development programs for these audiences.

One of the most popular ideas was the creation of “Green Jobs Corps” and “Clean Energy Corps” programs. The “corps” model has huge appeal. It entails small groups of people from targeted communities receiving training in basic literacy, life skills, job readiness, financial management, and environmental awareness, as well as technical education and paid internships leading to permanent employment and/or higher education. If this expanding movement has its way, look for it to spread quickly to every state.

Track Three: Integrating green job creation with workforce development was kind of the point of the whole shebang, and speaker after speaker rammed the point home. Oh, and green job movement leaders don’t just want government leaders to play nice with each other. They want all levels of government and business and environmentalists and labor unions and the educational community and other activists to rally ’round the green jobs flag. Well, okey dokey, as they say in Minnesota. You betcha.

Want stories about how this is all working out in practice? Of course you do. Try out Milwaukee, D.C., Chicago, Wisconsin, Baltimore, Newark, N.J., Los Angeles, Richmond, Calif., Oakland, Calif., and New York City.

So the level of hope really is audacious. Can a focus on green jobs carry the load of those hopes? Well, if we accept the call to action and work hard enough, you betcha. Anyway, that was the challenge those of us in the pews were given throughout the two days.

We were told that the current moment is a unique convergence of climate change-driven problems and opportunities that has opened the door unexpectedly wide for possible change. We’re not sure how long it will stay open, so we have to drop our ideological blinders, form broad coalitions with traditional and non-traditional partners, and seize the moment. Two sentence summary of the conference message? Change is coming, if you want it. Get to work.

I have to admit that no one actually said “you betcha,” although I did meet lots of people from Minnesota. Uffda! Now that I’ve mentioned Minnesota, can I share the completely unrelated Minnesota joke stuck into one of the speeches? It totally cracked up those attendees with stoic Norwegian-American backgrounds (read: me). Here it is: Did you hear about the Minnesota husband who loved his wife so much he almost told her? Ha! Hot dish and lefse for everyone.

It wasn’t all linked arms, “Kumbaya,” and “We Shall Overcome” among the 800-plus attendees. There were serious disagreements in the hallways about the possibility of “clean coal” and whether or not we should invest billions in the “promise” of carbon capture and sequestration. You can imagine that West Virginia environmentalists were less than impressed by the prospect.

The applause lines in support of coal from labor union leaders, Pennsylvania politicians, and energy company executives made some of the Sierra Club crowd really uncomfortable; there was a clear struggle to remain polite. Not unlike watching Nancy Pelosi listen to Bush’s State of the Union address.

Clean coal supporters had their turn to be uncomfortable at the Thursday night dinner when Architecture 2030‘s Ed Mazria delivered an absolutely devastating presentation titled “Life is Good,” which could just as easily have been called “No More Coal.” More about that and the anti-coal BYOBlue campaign in a separate post. Don’t wait for it, though. Check out the site now and learn more.

There was also some generational static on display. It seemed to me that the continued references to big efforts like World War II, the Marshall Plan, the Manhattan Project, and the Apollo mission weren’t very effective in galvanizing younger people. I mean, think about it: A 20-year-old college student was born in 1988 — almost 20 years after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

But disagreements about coal and metaphors (or nuclear power, or corn-based ethanol, or siting transmission lines, or the presence of a BP executive, or the relationship between climate change action and trade with China, or the shortage of veggie sandwiches relative to ham and turkey at lunch) were far outweighed by the unity over support for new green jobs to lift struggling people out of poverty. The spirit of movement partnership was palpable, and I’m not being ironic.

Sierra Club President Carl Pope ended the conference with a call for unity and open minds that felt unusually heartfelt. Then we prayed together as brothers and sisters with a common mission. We really did. And that was Pittsburgh.

Read more about the conference and what came out of it — including a clear definition of “green jobs” — in part 2 of my review.