Why green jobs plans matter and where US cities stand in implementing them

Green Jobs

The transition to a cleaner and more resilient economy will be one of the most significant economic and physical transformations in U.S. history.

By Green Umbrella,

Published July 25, 2023

Green Jobs
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Source: Brookings

Why green jobs plans matter and where US cities stand in implementing them

Editor’s note: This report is the first in a two-part series exploring how cities can support green workers, especially amid historic federal infrastructure investment. The second report focuses on specific federal funding opportunities.

The transition to a cleaner and more resilient economy will be one of the most significant economic and physical transformations in U.S. history. Trillions of dollars will be required to adopt clean electricity, retrofit homes and businesses, establish new manufacturing processes, and protect cities and towns from changing weather patterns. Now, with landmark federal laws—including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act—bringing significant public capital and tax credits to further incentivize private investment, the transition is poised to gain speed in the coming decade.

The rise of a green economy has also brought a renewed focus on green jobs. To put all this public and private capital to use, the country needs a sizable workforce to construct new power plants and transmission lines, modernize older buildings, and plan and deliver more resilient communities. Ideally, the transition to a green economy should offer durable and growing career pathways while it cleans the air, protects American neighborhoods, and grows U.S. industries.

However, there is reason for skepticism over whether there are enough workers ready to pursue all these projects. The workers who construct, operate, and maintain U.S. infrastructure are either in short supply, aging, or leaving their jobs rapidly. Transportation departments, water utilities, and other employers are struggling to retain talentlet alone find the millions of new workers needed in the skilled trades and other related positions in the coming years. Growing a clean economy will require more analysts, managers, and other white-collar professionals to oversee and assess humanmade and natural infrastructure systems. The concept of a green job is still far too amorphous, with little understanding of the knowledge and skills it will take to execute more climate-focused work.

Preparing a climate-ready workforce requires an all-hands-on-deck approach among public and private leaders across the country—including federal policymakers, state community college systems, and individual employers—but these capacity-related gaps often come to ground in U.S. cities and regions. Past Brookings research has highlighted how cities are essential to driving climate action. Many cities continue to make bold climate pledges, including commitments to achieve net zero emissions and protect the most vulnerable. They also play an active role in workforce development, including by funding educational and related training programs. But without a coordinated, comprehensive plan to retrain and recruit workers in well-defined, green-related careers, city leaders will be unable to achieve their climate ambitions.

This brief assesses 50 large cities’ climate action plans (CAPs), which ideally should encapsulate many of the elements essential to local infrastructure workforce development. Local leaders need to articulate their training and hiring priorities, the various sectors in need of talent, and the funding and timelines required to accelerate action. Of course, CAPs are not the only planning efforts addressing such needs—amid other programs launched by federal and state leaders, in addition to innovations in the private sector—but this brief shows that many local leaders are not in a position to harness new funding and that they have more workforce planning to do:

  • Most of the relevant cities—47 of 50—mention green jobs in their CAPs, but they only tend to do so in passing. While some cities do not refer to green jobs at all in their plans, most cities only include a more general call for equity and greater net opportunities.
  • Most of the cities—40 of 50—emphasize energy projects when discussing workforce needs, but considerably fewer cities emphasize workforce needs in terms of buildings, transportation, or other parts of the built environment. Only about half of the cities (24) emphasize workforce needs around building upgrades and retrofits, while even fewer (20) emphasize these needs around transportation improvements.
  • Only 19 of the 50 cities include detailed information on collaboration with other institutional and organizational partners when discussing workforce development. Examples of these partners include community colleges, community-based organizations, and other groups essential to engaging new workers, training them, and providing supportive services.
  • Only 11 of the 50 cities include information on funding—or additional programmatic support—for workforce development. Many cities do not spell out clear costs for needed training programs or propose specific funding and financing to support them.
  • Only 9 of the 50 cities include specific dates, benchmarks, or timelines for workforce development. Most CAPs lack details on the duration of any green workforce development efforts or benchmarks to measure success.

This research brief does not aim to precisely define green jobs, especially amid continued debates among policymakers and researchers on how to isolate, measure, or forecast such employment figures. Rather, this brief seeks to address the information deficits limiting local and regional planning about green jobs. It first examines the scope of the green jobs challenge by outlining the major skills and training needs, before considering some of the essential ingredients for ongoing local workforce development planning. Then, using detailed findings from our review of 50 municipal CAPs, we describe many of the successful practices that city leaders and other stakeholders can adopt to expand climate-focused talent development. America is poised to unleash generation-defining climate investment—and the American worker is poised to be a central part of these efforts.

A full list of the 50 cities analyzed is available in an interactive map below and described more extensively in a downloadable methods appendix.

To read the full report, click here!

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