At the first meeting of the Middle Class Task Force on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden celebrated the progress on a new, green economy kicked off by the stimulus package, and called for continued efforts to create more jobs that “keep up with 21st century needs and lower energy costs.” But his cabinet members also came with some tough questions about what it will take to create good, green jobs.
“We’re making unprecedented investments in economic recovery in this country, and unprecedented investments in green energy,” said Biden, who emphasized that these “green jobs” benefit more than just the people who will get them. “More green jobs mean more money in the wallet of everyone in America … It lowers your monthly bill and lowers the strain on your budget.”
He was joined at today’s meeting by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan, Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis, and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes. (One notable absence was White House Energy and Climate adviser Carol Browner, who was listed as a speaker but was nowhere to be seen.)
The summit was also, in part, aimed at showing the public that the agencies are coordinating on efforts to follow through on green jobs promises.
One such inter-agency partnership was announced at today’s summit, between the Department of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The two departments are working together to streamline and coordinate federal weatherization efforts with a high-level interagency task force, making it easier to access the $16 billion for the weatherization of low-income homes included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“This partnership will help build an industry and save or create thousands of jobs,” said Donovan. “In addition to saving and creating jobs, we have an opportunity to make our affordable housing stock, as well as all housing, energy efficient with the funds provided through the president’s recovery plan.”
While attendees at the summit spent plenty of time talking up the virtues of the stimulus package and the idea of green jobs for the middle class, much of it focused on addressing some of the challenges to creating and sustaining those jobs, and making sure they’re good jobs. Biden sought to emphasize that point. “This is not just something we’re throwing money at,” he said. “This is a serious, serious undertaking.”
One important point — raised by United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard — is that green jobs aren’t inherently un-exportable. Biden earlier had remarked that these are “good, high-paying jobs, the vast majority of which are not exportable.” But as Gerard noted, lots of jobs manufacturing parts for windmills and solar panels could be done at a lower cost overseas, moved offshore like past manufacturing jobs. “I think it would be a tragedy if we moved to a green economy and we did it with imported parts,” said Gerard, noting the need for trade policies that protect the jobs government plans to invest in. “I’m not anti-trade. But I want it to be fair, and I want the new economy to be the American economy.”
Van Jones, president of Green for All, brought the message that there needs to be a concerted effort to make sure these jobs go to the people who need them most and have been left out of previous economic booms. Jones, as he seems to do so often, brought the house to their feet with applause with his call to “green the ghetto first.” “Give those kids on the corner the opportunity to put down the handguns and pickup a caulking gun instead,” said Jones.
Many other serious concerns about the green economy were raised over the summit, which was held at the University of Pennsylvania. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis raised the gender implications of wide scale investment in these jobs, since the image of a green collar worker is so often a man in a hard hat. Jones said that this, too, needs to be considered in policymaking — and that women can be part of the transformation as well, whether as solar installers or as entrepreneurs, green tech designers, and engineers.
Another good question, from White House Domestic Policy Council Melody Barnes, was how this transition will affect mid-career workers. It’s easier for young people just entering the workforce to enter new fields, but more difficult for older workers to learn new skills or change to entirely different fields. Center for American Progress President and Obama transition chief John Podesta argued that many of these jobs will be in traditional industries, but with a greener bent. “Lots of these are familiar jobs, moving from building homes to retrofitting homes,” said Podesta.
Several panelists and cabinet members also expressed concerns shared by many that these jobs aren’t necessarily high-paying, union jobs, and called for high standards when it comes to worker training programs. Many also raised questions about just how fast green jobs can be funded, citing concerns about how long and bureaucratic the process for securing Department of Energy funds has been in recent years.
“Week number one in office, we took a hard look at why it was taking so long,” said Chu. “Now we see many areas where we can improve on getting the money out the door. We think we can reduce what took maybe 4 years to 4 to 5 months … We’re pretty serious about this.”
How serious? Guess we’ll wait and see. As for the Middle Class Task Force, Biden pledged today that they’ll meet every month for the next year to focus not just on green jobs but on other measures to restore the middle class.
“One of the things the president asked me to do is make sure our administration is saddled up and ready to go,” said Biden. “We want to figure out how we can responsibly and transparently put a lot of resources into moving this economy along and creating green jobs.”