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Green-collar jobs can help grow a sustainable economy

The tradition of apprenticeship — a craft master teaching trade skills to craft entrants — is one of the oldest and most effective methods of learning. That tradition continues in Minnesota today, and may be the key to growing a sustainable green-collar economy.

The state of Minnesota formalized the apprenticeship process and began registering apprentices in 1939, which has helped the state maintain a highly educated and skilled workforce, providing excellent services and making living wages. At present, there are more than 10,500 apprentices across Minnesota learning over 100 different occupations. In addition to three to five years of on-the-job training, apprentices also complete classroom training at union apprenticeship centers or one of the Minnesota State Colleges or Universities.

This ability to train a highly skilled workforce is needed more than ever. Massive layoffs and changing markets have contracted some sectors of the Minnesotan economy. Increasingly, green-collar industries are being explored as a potential source of future jobs that will pay living wages and revitalize the Minnesota economy. Our skilled workforce and abundance of natural resources, including wind and farmland, are two of the reasons the state is considered prime for developing the green-collar sector.

The “green-collar economy” is an emerging term, without a consensus definition. In its narrowest usage, the term describes research and manufacturing jobs related to alternative energy technologies, including biofuels, solar panels, and wind turbines. The Minneapolis and St. Paul Mayors Initiative on Green Manufacturing targets green building and transportation product development (including insulation, landscape materials, fuel cells, and hybrid buses), in addition to renewable energy technologies. But the definition can be even broader.

Continuous innovation
“When I hear green-collar jobs, I think of jobs that revolve around creating not just a sustainable economy but also sustainable communities and a business model that makes money,” said Tom Menke, cofounder of The Urban Project, a green building company, “I think all construction jobs can be considered a green-collar job, if you go about it in a specific way.” That way involves continuous innovation and redefining production within the framework of a “triple bottom line” of economy, environment, and local community.

If the green-collar economy is the future of economic development in Minnesota, what then do we need to do to prepare for it? Are our students and apprentices getting the education that a green-collar workforce will demand?

St. Paul College, which collaborates with many local unions to teach the classroom portion of apprenticeships, reports little change in the curricula for apprentices.  It’s reflective of the fact that while the specific products may change, there has been little difference in the fundamental way that we manufacture goods, build houses, or distribute electricity. The development of a green-collar economy so far is a simple process of adaptation, instead of revolution. 

That said, several unions cited that they were closely watching the development of green construction and manufacturing to keep their programs current, and have already started providing hands-on training with new technologies. 

“As electricians we try to stay ahead of the curve. … I do think there’s going to be a lot more interest [in windmills and other green technologies] in the very near future with energy prices going up the way they are,” said Andy Toft, Apprentice Training Director for the South Central Minnesota Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee for the Electrical Industry (SC MN JATC). Although demand is still small in much of rural Minnesota, the SC MN JATC added a section on alternative energies to their apprentice curriculum three years ago, and offers additional training on the cabling and work conditions in wind turbines. The Minneapolis Electrical JATC built the first certified solar PV training center.

Building on the past for demands of the future
According to the Minnesota Department of Labor, “In all skilled occupations, employers are becoming greatly concerned about the shortage of job candidates with the necessary skills and abilities.” Apprenticeships are a means of growing a skilled and sustainable green-collar workforce by retaining knowledge from the past and adapting to the demands of the future. 

But no matter how skilled the workforce is, we will not build a green-collar economy without demand and investment. The Mayors Initiative on Green Manufacturing in the Twin Cities is an excellent example of information as well as investment, and electricians in Rochester are volunteering their time to install solar panels on schools in Rochester to raise awareness.  

For Menke, the biggest difference between construction and green construction for builders as well as consumers is the emphasis on creativity and a constant drive to do something better, for the community and environment as well as economically.  “More than anything, it’s breaking habit. Getting out of the status quo.”

Minnesota has a prime opportunity to break the status quo and move forward. Investing in Minnesota’s future requires forward-thinking public policy that seamlessly integrates new technology with skilled craft tradition. Green-collar jobs can anchor Minnesota’s next trades generation, providing skilled, unionized workers with high-quality, high-paying jobs. Minnesota will be better and richer for it.

Erin Boeke Burke is a graduate research fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul.


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