Green Jobs – Richmond BUILD

Another glorious day in California! We have done so much but for now, let me tell you about Richmond Build.

The background

  • Richmond Build is a job-training programme of the City of Richmond’s Employment and Training Department, founded in 2007.
  • Richmond was one of America’s most violent cities 4-5 years ago, and Richmond Build was established in response to that, to help get people off the streets and into meaningful work.
  • They target people from low-income communities, aged 18 and upwards, who deserve a second shot.
  • It was first established as a construction-training programme but partnered with Solar Richmond in 2008, added training components in solar installation and energy efficiency and becoming a “green jobs academy”.

The numbers

  • They take three “cohorts” of approximately 30 people every year, whom they train for 15 weeks. They get 9 weeks in construction skills, 3 weeks in Green Energy Training (energy efficiency), and 3 weeks in solar installation training. Alongside this, they have 30 mins of maths every morning, a work-out every morning, constant access to a counsellor who can help them with any personal issues that they might have, such as childcare, anger management, substance abuse etc, and soft skills training in CV-building, time-keeping and general job-readiness.
  • The participants are 95% ethnic minorities. 60-70% african-american, 20% latino, and 5% asian, which broadly reflects the demographic of the city.
  • They get 200-300 applicants per cohort, so competition for places is fierce.
  • For the first few years, they were placing 90% of graduates into paid employment, although this has now dropped to around 70% (this is attributed to the current economy).
  • Most are going into regular construction jobs, with around 15-20% of graduates going into energy efficiency or solar installation jobs.

Why it’s possible

  • They are largely funded by state and federal grant, using stimulus package dollars. All grants from federal and state come upfront, not in instalments. They also get private funding from Chevron, and are seeking more funding from them.
  • Their (excellent) building is a city-building which they rent for the grand sum of $1 a year, and all utilities are paid by the city!
  • Local employers are bound by the authority to hire at least 25% of employees from the local workforce, so it is in their interest to have strong connections with Richmond BUILD.
  • There is no conflict for training participants between receiving welfare and receiving training. The US welfare to work scheme encourages recipients to volunteer / get training.
  • Richmond is a fairly small city – it’s easy to build strong relationships and partnerships, and easy for word of mouth to spread to attract participants.
  • They have a very dedicated and skilled staff team, which although small, has a wealth of experience in working with underserved communities.

The challenges

  • Lessons have been learned about what is required by employers, and therefore Richmond BUILD have added to the requirements of entering the programme. Before entering, participants must have graduated high school, have a driver’s license, have passed an “agility” test, and must leave the programme with a clean drugs test.
  • The number graduating into “green jobs” is low for a number of reasons – wages tend to be much lower with green employers, as those organisations are not unionised, and pay around $14-16 an hour. Traditional construction jobs, which are unionised, pay around $17-20 an hour.
  • The demand for solar still isn’t there – the hardware is too expensive, and electricity is still too cheap. As a result, the market for green energy jobs seems to be glutted in Richmond for now.
  • Relying almost purely on grant-funding is very unstable. If the grants stop, the programme stops.
  • They have varying levels of success with unions. The carpenters and laborers union has been very supportive, placing 4 women from the Richmond BUILD programme in their union last year – this means getting paid $20-25 an hour plus a ton of benefits. The electrician’s union, however, has not welcomed any graduates from the programme into the union, and this is attributed to ingrained racism and sexism within that union. Electric work is higher paid, less physically exerting, and more demanding in terms of arithmetic, but all interviews for acceptance are carried out by a panel of 15 older, white men, who are perceived to be rather protectionist over admission.

My observations

  • This is first and foremost a social programme, and is incredibly successful at engaging the underserved community and helping them into work and a new life. They have a very low drop-out rate, and from the students we met, I heard the term “family” more than once. Richmond BUILD are incredibly good at building a strong, warm and welcoming community.
  • Green jobs are not front and centre. They are placing graduates in well-paid work, wherever they can get it. Out of 100 students last year, only 3 were placed in “green jobs”, as a result of the challenges mentioned above. Although this is billed as a green jobs training programme, that definition is questionable.
  • Having said that, the accepted definition of green jobs over here seems to be within the energy sector. I wonder if they should widen their definition a little, as the participants at Richmond BUILD were also being taught how to work with less lumber and materials in the construction component. That seems pretty “green” to me.
  • They obviously get a lot from being privately funded by Chevron, but I got the feeling that it put them in a pretty tricky position last year when other environmental and social justice organisations in the area were lobbying against big oil companies in the No on Prop 23 campaign. Should they be putting themselves at potential opposition with allies? And should they be legitimising big oil by letting them fund a “green jobs academy”. All tricky questions.
  • I can not emphasise enough how life-changing and transformative an experience this programme seemed to be for participants. We met a 45 year old who had spent a large chunk of his life incarcerated, and has now gone on to land his first ever job. We met boys who credited Richmond BUILD for giving them their last shot at a decent life. I met two AMAZING women (top photo) who were completely inspirational. Shai (on the left) is 24. The programme has been completely transformative for her, helping her to focus on the task at hand, develop her skills, build her ambitions and gain confidence from being a woman in the trades. She wants to go into carpentry, but since she’s “good at destroying things”, she might go into labor! Her ambition is “to build her own house and not depend on a man”. Lela (on the right), told me everything there was to know about insulation. Her mission is “to save the world”. She wants to start her own business weatherizing houses, and she has done a lot of work on her own house already, helping to make it habitable for her family. None of her friends will litter in her presence since she won’t allow it. It was incredibly inspiring for me to see these strong women be in the minority and yet totally see themselves up for the challenge of a career in the trades.

So overall, a really great and encouraging experience, that left me with a few questions for what all this means for back home in the UK. I’ll have to keep thinking…


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