Creating ‘clean economy’ jobs in the building sector: some devilish details

Lindsay Baker
5 min readJul 14, 2020

As we approach the 2020 election season, I’ve been spending time looking through the many Green Stimulus proposals, Climate Action Plans and other documents floating around to set visions and action plans for future administrations, especially in light of the economic crisis of the pandemic. In a series of posts, I’m going to share my observations and critiques of these documents, from the perspective of a building professional who works on climate. I hope they are helpful broadly.

Today we’re going to talk about job creation. Lots of visionary documents about clean/green economic progress talk about the creation of jobs. But I was pretty shocked by the fact that the majority of the potential (or existing) jobs discussed in these documents are in the building industry. In fact, according to E2’s 2020 Clean Jobs America report, of the 3.3 million workers nationwide in the “clean jobs economy” at the beginning of 2020, 2.4 million work in the building efficiency sector, compared to roughly half a million in clean energy. Check this out.

From the E2 Clean Jobs America Report (linked above)

Also, many plans talk about the importance of equity in the creation of jobs- creating jobs for formerly incarcerated people, low-income people, people of color. And yet, few plans talk about the actual ways to create these jobs, or they cite one program, or they are just a bit vague about it. Or they suggest job creation mechanisms that won’t help these communities at all. So I thought I would post some info here about the ways we can get more people into good jobs in the building industry working on combating climate change.

I will also just start with a shout-out to the BlueGreen Alliance’s Plan, Solidarity for Climate Action. I hope my suggestions here are concrete examples of the spirit of what they are proposing, which is the most comprehensive vision I have seen in these documents in terms of the ways we will create jobs and a clean economy at the same time.

First, We Must Train New Professionals for Building Sector Jobs

We need a national program to fund training for underserved individuals, formerly incarcerated individuals, immigrants and underrepresented people of color to improve the performance of existing buildings. These skills can be learned through a variety of training program methods. Here are some models:

In case this sounds familiar, you may recall the effort that Van Jones and The Ella Baker Center led almost a decade ago, to push on Green Collar Jobs. I spoke with a friend who was involved with the work there, and read this report, and came to the conclusion that these programs are ideally situated within Community Colleges. So I would strongly advocate for funding for that format, along with strong public-private partnerships like the community around LACI in Los Angeles.

Second, We Need to Upskill Existing Buildings Professionals

There are millions of professionals already employed in the building industry who could be on track for better, higher-paying, more stable jobs that also help mitigate climate change. In particular, upskilling building engineers and building operators can allow for smart building technologies to be deployed in buildings that otherwise will not have that capability. Another great opportunity is to upskill residential builders and trades on efficiency and clean energy skills and knowledge.

A national program to fund the training of existing building industry professionals on energy management, indoor health management, and other key sustainability practices could have enormous benefits for jobs and the climate. Here is a non-comprehensive list of programs that offer these opportunities.

For large building management

For specific trades

For residential homes

  • This DOE page lists many of the residential energy training and certification programs.
  • The Building Performance Institute has many specific programs such as Envelope Professional, Healthy Home Inspector, Energy Auditor, etc.

Finally, we need manufacturing jobs for the building sector

The building industry is supported by a huge supply chain of construction materials, advanced technology, and everything in between. We need more jobs in America that fabricate, recycle, reclaim and maintain these materials. The possibilities are endless here. We need incentives for companies who manufacture materials for the building sector to create great jobs in America. But in particular, if we are planning to use policy to create these jobs, we need to ensure a few things:

  • We should only be supporting healthy and safe jobs, and not all building materials are manufactured in a way that is healthy and safe. There are many ways to define and ensure that manufacturers are providing healthy and safe environments for their workers.
  • We need to create jobs at companies that are owned by women and people of color, and companies that are otherwise dedicated to the betterment of their communities. Again, many ways to evaluate these and write that into a good policy.
  • We should focus on incentivizing job creation in industries where private investment is not as accessible. There are lots of high-tech companies that can get capital elsewhere to grow their workforce. Those shouldn’t be the main recipients of government support.

Those are my votes.

I didn’t cover every job in the building sector that can contribute to a clean economy. Notably, I left out one group that you may have noticed: construction workers. I love construction workers, and I think we should have lots of them, and I think they should be paid fairly and treated well and their work environments should be healthy and safe. But we don’t have a hard time creating these jobs if we are building infrastructure and buildings, which is an element of all good clean economy plans, so I think it is covered sufficiently there. In other words, I don’t want anyone to enact a Green Stimulus plan where the only jobs created are construction jobs, because it’s a cop-out and creates the least sustaining and just jobs we have in our sector. So I’m de-emphasizing it on purpose.

These are just some thoughts about how we create these jobs, who is already doing great work, and hopefully some useful distinctions for policymakers on all the different options we have at our fingertips in creating jobs in the building sector. Feel free to reach out to me if I’ve missed something, or if you have creative ideas about how to get more people in the important work of building stewardship!