Green jobs in action: Clean Energy Works Oregon

Cross-posted from the East London Green Jobs Alliance as part of a green jobs inspiration series

Recently I got to meet one of the Clean Energy Works Oregon committee members, Barbara Byrd, when she spoke at the Green Jobs BC conference. I was really inspired by her experiences building local alliances and by the success of a pilot programme that’s now in its third year.

Clean Energy Works was established in 2009 as a Portland-based pilot, testing out ways to encourage the growth of green and decent jobs by developing the home weatherization and retrofit market. The founders wanted to promote social inclusion and reducing carbon emissions at the same time by bringing together homeowners with local contractors, lenders and utilities so they could easily upgrade their homes for energy efficiency. It was created through a unique financing model that makes efficiency upgrades more accessible to homeowners by helping them get private loans to carry out the work, which is then repaid with the savings on their energy bills. In 2011, the programme secured funding expanded to all of Oregon. Two years in, they’ve retrofitted 2,000 homes out of a possible 500,000 statewide in need of efficiency upgrades and employed almost 900 people, including 240 new jobs in construction.

Putting social justice at the forefront

A key part of their strategy has been something they call the High Road Standards and Benefits, a set of benchmarks for including people who’ve been historically left out of economic development. Now that the Green Deal has been launched in the UK, the High Road strategy is an interesting counterpoint.

High Road aims to to change the demographic makeup of workers and businesses while also increasing pay and benefits standards across the industry. Some of the standards are requirements for any contractors participating in the scheme – for example health insurance must be provided and wages must be at a certain level – and others are incentivized. Contractors that meet High Road Standards get more customer referrals, on-the-job training wage subsidies for new workers, and training scholarships for workers. Clean Energy Works also provides business and marketing support to their contractors.

Key components:

  • 30% of all hours worked by historically underrepresented or economically disadvantaged people (ethnic minorities, women, low-income residents, past offenders, veterans)
  • 20% of project funds going to businesses owned by disadvantaged or underrepresented people
  • 80% of workers are local residents
  • Living wages (at least 180% of minimum wage)
  • Health care coverage (needed in America)
  • For people coming into the industry or ready for a promotion, resources are available > education, certification, career pathways
  • Contractors to hire at least the first 50% of workforce needed for each project from agreed training programmes.

Why it works

  • High profile champion from the start: The Mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, convened the first roundtable meeting and continued to support the project as it developed.
  • Clear financing mechanisms: By securing initial investment from the US government’s Recovery and Reinvestment Fund, they were able to capitalize a community load straight away.
  • All parties at the table: Although building alliances with unlikely bedfellows is never easy,Clean Energy Works saw the necessity of working together across employers, trade unions, environmental organisations and community stakeholders. Although a few partners have got fed up and walked away, most see the value in the work they’re doing together and are committed to making their alliance work.
  • Leverage with employers: Because certified contractors needed to demonstrate a commitment to the High Road Standards if they wanted to participate in the scheme, buy-in from the start to the programme’s social justice goals was embedded from the start.

Challenges

  • Maintaining the diversity of contractors: When they scaled up and went statewide, the number of minority & woman-owned business involvement in the program fell. They attribute this to challenges small businesses faced with marketing, and the simple fact that there are less minority & women-owned contractors in non-urban areas.
  • Engaging more diverse customers: Even though the home improvements are relatively affordable, there wasn’t much take-up from low to moderate income households. To address this, they’re planning on putting more effort into marketing and are working on a structure that will allow rental and low income households to participate too. They have also identified a need for multilingual project information.
  • Legal issues around hiring: Although the High Road targets specified a certain percentage of women and ethnic minorities be hired for each job, in the end legal issues blocked them from becoming binding. Instead, the targets are now aspirational, with incentives given to contractors who meet or exceed them. Clean Energy Works is helping to develop a diverse pool of work-ready talent by recruiting for training programmes through local commmunity-based organisations.
  • Translation from cities to smaller communities: The pilot project standards (set in an urban environment) had to be adapted for statewide expansion to make sense for smaller communities, where there are different ideas about labour unions, appropriate wage levels and workforce standards.
  • Need for a long-term funding strategy: Coordination and project development takes time and capacity, especially when working with diverse alliances on innovative ideas. Although the actual project’s business model has been proven, they still need to find a way to support core program costs over the long run.
  • Scaling up: The pace of retrofits has been slightly below target – they are currently 2,000 homes and 2 years into a 3 year 6,000 home project, which means they’ll need to ramp up significantly in 2013 to meet their targets. Barbara attributes much of this to the general recession (unemployment is hovering around 8% in Oregon). In addition, power is relatively cheap in the Pacific Northwest, since much of it comes from hydropower, reducing the appetite for home efficiency upgrades. Kelly Haines, the organisation’s Workforce Specialist, is more optimistic, commenting that “It has been the overall complexities that come with building any new program: getting all the pieces in place…and we are now reaching a level of maturity with our processes that we can deliver more in less time. Every month, our volume of applications and completed projects increases in a j-curve fashion”. Neither Barbara nor Kelly see the High Road Standards as a hindrance to programme growth.

Building diverse alliances

And lastly, here are some tips from the incredibly wise Barbara Byrd on building alliances with unlikely bedfellows:

  • Choose your potential allies carefully. Who else has a stake in the issue? What kind of capacity (staff, financial, political clout, etc.) will they bring to the alliance? What’s their history of working with others?
  • Have ground rules – decide how decisions will be made (consensus is best, if you can get there); decide how you’ll handle situations where agreement isn’t possible; agree not to criticize other organizations in the alliance publicly; etc.
  • Build relationships one-on-one. It’s really important for the stakeholders to get to know each other personally, to learn more about each other’s organizations, to find as much common ground and mutual respect as possible. When the tough issues arise, as they always do, strong personal relationships can hold the alliance together past organizational conflict.
  • Work toward short-term win’s and celebrate them together.
  • Try to make sure that everyone gets a win sometime – look out for each other’s interests.
  • Bring in new allies from time to time, as issues evolve and situations change.
  • Don’t get discouraged – depending on the issues you’re tackling, the work can be really hard. It takes time to build strong alliances, so hang in there!


Further reading:

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About lizmcdowell

I am a strategist, facilitator, social entrepreneur, campaigner and occasional tetra-pak wallet-maker. Learn more about me at http://flavours.me/lizmcdowell

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