Urban Wire Three Ways to Advance Racial Equity in the Workforce while Combating Climate Change
Zach Boren, Jacqueline Rayfield
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Two workers outside a windmill plant.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Biden discussed the historic, bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which, he suggested, will help the nation “withstand the devastating effects of the climate crisis and promote environmental justice.”

The bill marks an attempt toward accomplishing the president’s dual goals of developing green infrastructure and creating good jobs. The IIJA injects more funding into green infrastructure and not only offers an opportunity to combat the mounting environmental crisis but also holds promise to redress long-standing racial inequities that result from it. Because of racist zoning policies, climate change results in economic losses that disproportionately affect communities of color. Infrastructure investments from the IIJA are estimated to create approximately 2 million new jobs a year, and policymakers can consider targeting the good paying jobs and job training toward people of color.

But the IIJA isn’t enough to address the climate emergency (PDF) and disparities in job quality for communities of color. Alone, it does not dedicate the requisite funds to prepare workers for the jobs needed to complete the bill’s goals. And Moody’s Analytics projects 80 percent of these jobs will go to white workers, with most going to men.

Policymakers can capitalize on the momentum and funding the IIJA offers by complementing it with climate and workforce policies and programs that focus on equitable hiring and training for high-quality jobs. Here are three evidence-based elements they can consider incorporating.

  1. Skill development for green infrastructure through registered apprenticeships

    Registered apprenticeship is a proven tool for preparing workers for in-demand jobs and ensuring they have an opportunity to be hired for “skills, not just their degrees,” as President Biden stated.

    With an earn-while-you-learn model, apprenticeships allow participants to earn money while gaining the skills for a high-paying career. Fast-growing occupations, like solar installer and wind turbine technician, are perfect candidates for registered apprenticeships because they already require significant on-the-job training. Even without additional federal investment in clean energy, the solar installer and wind turbine technician workforces are projected to grow by 52 percent and 68 percent by 2030, far outpacing the national average for job growth. Moreover, these clean energy occupations pay better than the national average salary without a college degree requirement.

    Research also shows apprenticeships can increase gender diversity when expanded beyond traditionally male trades. Recruitment and retention efforts are especially critical for women and Black Americans in construction occupations with lower participation rates, despite the program’s potential as a pathway for diverse talent. Apprenticeship sponsors and registration agencies can take additional steps to further equity and inclusion in apprenticeship programs.

    But the federal government has underinvested in apprenticeship programs nationally (reaching only $185 million in fiscal year 2021), despite its high wage and retention outcomes for workers. By comparison, Germany’s apprenticeship system serves nearly double the number of apprentices as the US at $6.84 billion. Additional funding and policy focus could strengthen the apprenticeship system to be ready for green infrastructure career preparation.
  2. Build a Civilian Climate Corps using diverse hiring practices

    The administration’s American Jobs Plan calls for $10 billion to relaunch a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), much like the same-name program that helped move us out of the Great Depression. The original CCC, launched in 1933, was widely popular with Democrats and Republicans alike for growing jobs and improving national parks by employing young, out-of-work Americans. Its primarily youth membership came from working families that traveled the country planting trees and building roads and trails. Whereas the original CCC lacked diversity and inclusive recruiting practices—capping Black participants at 10 percent of the corps and building segregated base camps for Native American and African American participants—a modern CCC could provide opportunities targeted toward communities of color.

    By focusing on protective and green infrastructure while promoting diversity and inclusive practices, a modern CCC could address some of the current disparities in employment and provide the same bipartisan political appeal. With high rates of youth unemployment, a new CCC could boost employment for young people. It could also provide training for high-paying occupations while supporting projects that benefit Black and Latinx communities most affected by climate change and climate injustice.
  3. Ensure local, diverse hiring and good jobs in federal infrastructure projects

    Green IIJA investments can be designed to maximize their benefits to local communities—with federal policies that prioritize public works projects that emphasize local hiring and provide for middle-class wages and benefits.

    Project labor agreements (PLAs) and local hiring provisions would ensure projects are completed on time and under budget with a steady, local stream of labor. PLAs can allow government contracts to ensure agencies and local governments hire a diverse, local workforce and limit potential project delays. They also can be geared for inclusion by removing barriers for people with criminal records (PDF) and creating pathways for those without experience, including apprentices. Moreover, evidence (PDF) shows PLAs can support high-skill and high-wage jobs that benefit trainees and communities. When PLAs incorporate local hiring provisions, they ensure all communities benefit economically from the infrastructure built in their communities. PLAs should have a natural role in the upcoming infrastructure decade.

Policymakers can use the IIJA as a starting point to build additional capacity to combat climate change and to accomplish simultaneous efforts to build green infrastructure, quality job expansion, and racial equity. Our climate future depends on it, as do the Americans who can build it.

The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.

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Research Areas Workforce
Tags Job markets and labor force Climate adaptation and resilience Racial inequities in employment
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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