the (new) american worker

Cash for Caulkers: Not Exactly a Done Deal

With a healthy 346-68 lead, the House passed yesterday the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, a bill that offers tax incentives for investment in home energy efficiency, with the hopes of creating scores of new auditing and construction jobs. Of course, with the passage of a bill now humorously termed “Cash for Caulkers,” the usual flood of celebratory DC press releases flooded the wires.

Beyond the press release: Unless DC Democrats can make the budget cuts required by Republican support of the new Home Star jobs bill, the "Cash for Caulkers" program is just an empty promise.

From House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office: “The legislation will create nearly 168,000 jobs in construction, manufacturing, and retail – some of the hardest hit sectors during the Bush recession.” (LOL, the “Bush recession” – kudos to the communications officers for that one).

From Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA): “I am pleased that this legislation will incentivize targeted job training and financial assistance for low-income communities and the chronically unemployed.”

Woo! What a great bill, right? Creating good jobs for American workers building energy efficient infrastructure, WHILST trimming back tax burdens. Um, well kind of – as Atlantic Journal Constitution blogger Jamie Dupree notes, Democrats actually turned against this bill in early voting, in protest of a Republican “Deficit Neutrality” motion. This motion essentially mandated that the costs of the “Cash for Caulkers” program be offset by new revenues or cutbacks elsewhere to come into effect. Without cuts or new revenue creation, it will, in effect, be a nothing bill. After some wrangling, Democrats voted with the motion, meaning they have some work to do before any of those promised jobs can be created. Of course, with the House passage,  the Senate now faces a similar challenge.

In my opinion, politicians need to get to work on this issue – and fast. After all, these jobs aren’t handouts – they are in high demand. Even before the dangling of tax credits, it has been clear Americans want to improve their homes. I recall an article in the Atlantic a few months back that followed the training of two brothers as energy auditors – one a former real estate broker psyched for the huge demand for his new-found talents. In light of this promise, let’s hope Washington can get it together and find a place – with some real meaning behind it  – for the Cash for Caulkers program.


No (Economic) Surprise: Green Manufacturing Jobs Flow Overseas
April 3, 2010, 2:52 pm
Filed under: jobs | Tags: , , , , ,

One of the persistent concerns of President Obama’s massive $367 billion federal investment in new energy projects – from coal to renewables – is that the American labor force is too expensive, and/or lacks the proper training, for the needs of producers. A piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek this week captured this idea quite simply:

No surprises: Arizona's First Solar will use federal incentives to hire 200 American workers - yet 71 percent of its manufacturing needs will still be met by foreign labor.

From BBW:

“Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Inc. plans to do 71 percent of its manufacturing hiring in Malaysia after getting $16.3 million in federal funding to hire 200 people at an Ohio plant.”

Herein lies the ultimate problem – the economics of outsourcing the majority of manufacturing needs still makes sense to companies, incentives or not. Unfortunately, this simple reality doesn’t quiet any of the political outrage – especially as the Obama administration attempts to make good on its promise of 700,000 new jobs in stimulus renewables projects.

A green “industrial revolution” right here in America sounds great to some people – me included. This very blog was created to educate myself and others on the potentials for American labor in a new energy economy. Yet how the Obama administration is supposed to leapfrog over simple economics – foreign labor is, in my cases, simply cheaper – is still unclear to me. Perhaps it really is time that our nation’s expectations are shifted towards the potentials that lie in specialization and competitive advantage. CNBC recently ran a days-long debate on this topic, and the discussion turned often to where our best efforts should lie: in advanced education and innovation or in heavy industry and brawn. I believe Obama’s energy policies intended to do both – boosting Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh too. But is this really an economic reality? Perhaps not. “Green tech” manufacturing seems likelier to catch headwinds, i.e., manufacturing roles that place a heavy emphasis on innovation and other specialties, like low-carbon technology. But putting American steelworkers back to work building solar panels? Even with training and workforce investment, as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis promised in this manufacturing summit on CNBC, this is a tall order. I’ll continue to entertain the idea (dream). But in the meantime, let’s not be surprised when we continue to lose certain types of jobs overseas – even better, let’s plan for it.

Gillibrand on Green Jobs: Good Ideas, But Still Too Political
March 9, 2010, 4:22 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , ,

If this doesn’t capture the political culture surrounding federal efforts to stimulate green job creation…

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has all the right ideas on green job creation - but is still too political to acknowledge publicly a speaking engagement yesterday with Van Jones, Obama's former "green jobs" czar.

It started with a simple Google search. I was wondering whatever happened to Van Jones, the energetic “green jobs” czar that resigned from the Obama administration last fall amid criticism of his unfortunate association with 9/11 conspiracy groups. Less controversially, Jones also released a book last year, “Green Collar Economy,” that detailed the labor opportunities of a green tech renaissance.

I found two things in my search – one, Jones actually made a recent “comeback,” accepting both a teaching position at Princeton University and a fellowship at the Center for American Progress late last month. Second, I found an article by HuffPo business reporter Shahien Nasiripour, detailing Jones’s appearance just yesterday with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), at a conference on green job creation. Nasiripour reports Gillibrand’s statements included a branding of green jobs as “the greatest market opportunity of our generation,” and a call upon President Obama for a “shoot-for-the-moon” speech to rally greenies and skeptics alike on the pressing need for job creation in a new energy economy. It is a great piece – for two reasons. First, it captures the heady statements of a “green” Senator challenging the political status quo. Second, Nasiripour is just about the only one to report that these statements even occurred. Despite comparing the urgency of creating a green workforce to putting a man on the moon, there is absolutely no mention of Gillibrand’s speech on either her federal or electoral sites (Gillibrand is up for election this year, her first public election since NY Governor David Paterson appointed her to Hilary Clinton’s former seat last year.)

I found all this pretty odd. It’s not as if Gillibrand has been shy about the need to provide out-of-work Americans with new opportunities in cleantech and energy. Last January, she joined fellow New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) to announce an $8 million federal grant to Rochester, NY-based PathStone Corporation. According to a release on her own site, “low income workers will be taught the skills required in high growth industries, including energy efficiency and renewable energy,” as a result of this grant. So why get all shy about her energetic statements at yesterday’s conference?

Unfortunately, I think the answer here is purely political. Another quick Google search shows Gillibrand caught some flak last month, from a potential Republican opponent, for committing to a speaking engagement alongside Jones, a man Fox News talk show host Glenn Beck has previously decried as a “communist.” Sigh. I think Jones’s prior association with “truther” groups is pretty unfortunate, even stupid for a man with so much legitimate promise. The new rules for absolute human spotlessness in Washington – despite the fact that most humans, let alone politicians, are hardly spotless – probably did make Jones the wrong pick for a federal post. But let’s not let all this completely obstruct the fact that Jones has got a lot of really great ideas, ideas that have the potential to help any American, of any political party. Gillibrand should be communicating this at the highest volume – to put politics to bed and good ideas back in charge.

–Mia Lamar

Obama Uses Energy Workers At Their Desks to Frame (Literally) Jobs Remarks
March 6, 2010, 1:39 am
Filed under: jobs | Tags: , , ,

As a former student of electoral politics – and current student of energy economy – President Obama’s press conference at OPower, an Arlington, VA-based energy efficiency consultancy, last Friday caught my eye for two reasons.

President Obama pitched pieces of his jobs bill Friday standing in the office of OPower, a VA-based energy efficiency consultancy.

First, Obama delivered his remarks right in the middle of the OPower office, with OPower workers literally just standing at their desks to hear the President speak. Stepping up to a simple podium set in the middle of the room, Obama launched into his brief speech with a casual aside:

“Just looking around the room, this looks like a fun place to work,” he said, naturally drawing polite laughter. (When the POTUS gives a speech 10 feet from your desk, you laugh at his jokes.)

Visually, it was highly evocative of Obama’s message to put Americans to work at innovative companies like OPower. I liked it. No doubt, some politcal hand got a nice pat on the back for setting up that shot.

Second, the President delivered this speech on the heels of a weekly data report that found the economy lost 36,000 jobs for the final week of February – less than anticipated, but still bleak. Sticking to his message of the past couple months, the President eagerly emphasized the growth potential of companies like OPower. He claimed that the consultancy “doubled its workforce last year,” and “hopes to add another 100 workers this year.” He then touted his plan to offer a $5,000 tax credit for each additional hire companies make – a point he emphasized by bidding up, auctioneer style, OPower’s planned number of new hires, from “110…115…we’ll see,” to OPower CEO Daniel Yates standing off camera.

100 new workers at one firm in Virginia in one year – if OPower’s claims are valid, that would be a pretty rapid infusion to the workforce. I think this makes an important point. While large-scale projects like nuclear can provide good, high-paying jobs, the numbers I have seen for these massive projects cap at about a few thousand new workers. Energy beliefs aside, I think the combination of start-up psychology, (hopefully) significant growth potential and overall agility makes companies like OPower all the more powerful for development of the American workforce and human capital.

–Mia Lamar

Good Jobs First: Total “Supply Chain” Still Needed
March 4, 2010, 4:22 pm
Filed under: jobs | Tags: ,

A candid report on the total energy “supply chain” was released by labor group Good Jobs First today. For all the discussion of the need for jobs in building new energy infrastructure, this report notes – as we’ve seen in the depressed demand for wind turbines, etc – that theses jobs won’t be able to reach their full potential until demand is elevated. How do we do that? First, pass climate legislation, indicating and assuring consumers of the long-term U.S. benefits of renewable energy sources.

From the report: “The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy, including safeguards to ensure that increased demand for renewable energy systems doesn’t simply create manufacturing jobs in low-wage havens,” says Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy.

Check out the full report here.

Wind Farms Not Hiring
February 8, 2010, 11:17 pm
Filed under: Wind | Tags: , , , ,

One of the focal points of this blog is examining the political promises of job creation through a new energy economy. Personally, I believe this is achievable, and I hope that political showboating doesn’t get in the way of a establishing a real revolution, both for sustainable energy and the American worker. Unfortunately, as this Seattle Times article suggests, there is always one problem: demand must exist for these energy solutions if there are to be jobs to create them.

Despite building more wind power than ever before in 2009 – enough to power 2.4 million homes, according to the Seattle Times – many wind farms report they are slowing or stopping production altogether because of light demand. Even wind-turbine heavyweight Vestas, a Danish maker, has stopped production at its first U.S. plant, opened in 2008. Other firms report they would like to take advantage of the tax credits offered as part of last year’s federal stimulus, but must wait until credit markets loosen and demand for wind power increases.

The article cites as one example Hexcel Corp, a Colorado-based manufacturer of wind turbine parts.

“Hexcel qualified for $8.1 million in tax credits, but it’s unlikely the company will complete more of its facility or take the rest of the credits this year. It might use them in 2011 or 2012, however, depending on demand, Bacal said. When fully operational, the plant will hire about 80 to 90 people.” (emphasis mine)

We know that the limp economy does not make for the best conditions to kickstart new energy projects. Yet, the wind industry also claims that until the Obama administration forms a clear, reliable plan for mainstream incorporation of renewable energies, investors will continue to hesitate on wind.

These sorts of projects need years of planning and support – if the Obama administration is serious about renewable energy – and the president’s recent forays into nuclear and clean coal suggests he may not be – then incentives for investors and users – not just producers – must be created now.

Lastly, training and investment in human capital must also increase. Almost half of all wind turbines installed in the U.S. last year were made overseas. Competitive advantage must be established in some capacity here in America if the president is serious about getting Americans back to work building energy infrastructure. Otherwise, we will continue to lose growth opportunities overseas to countries that have already long made these human and technological investments.

–Mia Lamar