Green Collar 

Local initiative strives to define, grow green jobs in Memphis.

Leah Wells hopes that one day "green jobs" will simply be called "jobs."

"I think people are already on board with it, but the day that they're just jobs," she said, "that will be a good day."

Wells is the coordinator of the Green Jobs Initiative of the Mid-South, a program funded by BioDimensions to grow green jobs in Memphis. Last week, the group held two meetings to discuss what a green job should look like in Memphis.

"There's no good reason why [green jobs] can't happen here," Wells said.

Last April, in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Green for All held its Dream Reborn conference here. Founded by Van Jones, Green for All is a national organization that links two problems — the environment and the economy — with a common solution.

Both Wells and BioDimensions principal Pete Nelson helped organize that conference locally, but there was no way they could have known then how much political will would be behind the green-jobs movement today.

Last week, Jones testified before Congress about the possibilities of green jobs as part of the country's economic recovery package.

"Solar panels don't install themselves. Wind turbines don't manufacture themselves. Homes and buildings don't retrofit or weatherize themselves," Jones said. "In our industrial society, trees don't even plant themselves anymore. Real people must do all of that work."

Jones told Congress that green-collar jobs include energy-efficient construction, the renewable electric power industry, the recycling industry, and manufacturers that produce sustainable products using environmentally sustainable processes and materials.

"We are not talking Buck Rogers jobs or science fiction jobs or George Jetson jobs. These are very familiar jobs in familiar trades — roofers, metalworkers, electricians, carpenters, etc. But they have been repurposed and up-skilled to meet the challenges of a carbon-constrained era."

But what might these jobs look like in Memphis?

"Ours is not as obvious," Nelson said. "Other areas are going to be stronger in wind or solar energy, but we have advantages if we build things right. We need to be creative in our thinking and not chase what another city is doing."

One case study the group discussed involved energy audits and weatherizing older homes. Wells noted that the parts of the city with the highest utility bills are the same parts with the lowest income.

"Not only does it give someone a job," she said, "it will save people money in the long run."

Another plausible example was a television recycling plant in St. Louis. Wells compared what those workers were doing to people in Memphis who steal catalytic converters off of cars and copper wiring out of buildings.

"If they're going to be taking things apart, let's get them in the right industry," she said.

The group says that green jobs have benefits that might not be apparent at first glance. Weatherizing will make an older home more efficient, generating lower utility bills and leaving more money for other things.

If the air quality is improved, asthma is less of a problem. That means fewer sick days for kids, making it more likely they'll do better in school and fewer days parents have to take off from work because their child is sick.

The first step for the initiative is to conduct a regional study to identify opportunities to grow green jobs.

"These jobs don't exist," Nelson said, "but we're speculating what they are going to look like."

In addition to the study, the group plans to complete a strategic plan in June and create an ongoing green-jobs initiative in August.

However successful, Nelson noted that the Mid-South probably won't develop thousands of green jobs by next year.

"It took the petroleum industry 140 years to develop into what it is today. It took the chemical industry 70 years. So it's going to take a little while," he said.

But that doesn't mean it won't happen.

Wells has lived in Memphis for about five years but says the city is going to be her home. She was in the middle of getting her Ph.D. from Ole Miss when she decided to take six months off from school to coordinate the green-job effort.

When asked why, she said, "I think this is a game-changer strategy for the city."

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