A foot in the door

A report prepared last February on the difficulties women and people of color face in finding green jobs in Western North Carolina has prompted local leaders to work on ways to improve their access to the green economy.

The YWCA and Green Opportunities, an Asheville community development organization, launched the initiative, which started with a research project to assess the status of women and people of color in Asheville and Buncombe County’s green economy and identify barriers and best practices for creating a more inclusive green economy. The initiative was supported by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the Women for Women program at The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina.

In working toward a comprehensive understanding of these issues, multiple research methods targeted different population groups, including women and people of color looking for green jobs, green-jobs-training program administrators, and green business employers. 

Findings and recommendations from the report formed the focus for ongoing planning discussions for a group of leaders from local businesses, government agencies and community-based organizations.

The report notes that the status of women and people of color in WNC’s green economy is mixed.  Specific findings include the following:

  • Although local green businesses are struggling to provide a large number of jobs, the jobs they do provide are usually of high quality, offering a living wage and other benefits such as health care, flexible schedules, on-the-job training and upward mobility.
  • However, competition for a limited number of available jobs means that people facing barriers to employment — including women and people of color — are often overlooked.
  • Women are concentrated in administrative positions and at all levels of the business, including upper-level administration and ownership positions.
  • People of color, especially men, tend to be concentrated in entry-level, on-site labor positions. They are rarely found in administrative positions of any type or in positions with supervisory titles.

Access to green jobs for low-income women and people of color is limited by various difficulties, including the inability to meet basic needs, mental and physical health issues, lack of transportation and lack of adequate education and job skills. Women, regardless of their income, are generally not encouraged to enter trade careers such as those found in the local green economy. 

At the institutional level, there seems to be a cycle of challenges to hiring and retaining women and people of color. First, there is simply a shortage of green jobs available locally. A limited number of women and people of color in existing green jobs translates into a lack of role models and mentors for those entering the job market. This lack of mentors provides one reason why green employers report that women and people of color are not applying for jobs, and some green training programs reported difficulties in recruiting women and people of color. Still, most green businesses and green-jobs training programs lack targeted recruitment efforts aimed at these populations, adding to the multiple barriers they face to gaining green employment.

Training programs that specifically target people of color, such as Green Opportunities and Asheville-Buncombe Community Christian Ministries, are able to recruit plenty of trainees and applicants, but find that job placement and retention remain largely elusive unless employers are specifically seeking candidates who are women or people of color.

Based on these findings, the report made a number of recommendations to establish a more inclusive local green economy, including:

  • Strengthening partnerships and collaborations.
  • Increasing targeted recruitment and outreach to people facing barriers to employment.
  • Standardizing green educational-and-training programming.
  • Increasing access to wrap-around services, such as child care, transportation, mental-health counseling, job training and more.
  • Participating in economic development and social enterprise, and developing strategies to create jobs for program trainees by finding unfilled local niches and opportunities.
  • Creating mentoring, networking, and apprenticeship opportunities.
  • Measuring and evaluating training programs and access to green jobs.

Since the release of the study, a group of local stakeholders made up of business owners, green-jobs-training program leaders and policymakers has come together to implement these recommendations. 

Partnerships across green businesses and green-jobs training programs are becoming stronger and more streamlined, thanks in part to the stakeholders’ work. By meeting regularly, stakeholders are networking and sharing opportunities such as job training, community projects and employment opportunities smoothly and efficiently. 

Examples of these partnerships include Green Opportunities’ work with the Asheville Housing Authority and the city of Asheville to secure a $4 million grant to renovate the W.C. Reid Center, with the renovation itself serving as a green-jobs training program for women and people of color from low-income neighborhoods. The Western North Carolina Green Building Council’s NeighborSaves progam is working to create insulation and crew-leader positions for GO graduates; the program was initially funded by the Community Foundation, with financing opportunities through Self Help Credit Union. And A-B Tech is working with the YWCA to create a Women in Technology and Engineering program, strengthening recruitment and training targeted specifically to women. 

In terms of job creation, a number of graduates from green-jobs-training programs have secured jobs at local green companies such as FLS Energy, Sundance Power Systems and Blue Ridge Biofuels.

Perhaps most important, awareness about the benefits and importance of a local green economy is becoming more widespread. The stakeholders group is now embarking on a promotional campaign aimed at recruiting women and people of color into green jobs and raising awareness among local green employers. Local business leaders already report having greater consciousness about their own hiring practices simply by being part of the stakeholders group. 

These efforts hold the promise of maintaining strong partnership networks, increasing awareness — and most important to the local economy — increasing opportunities for meaningful, quality green jobs for women and people of color. 

To learn more about the Inclusive Green Economy Initiative, or to read the full report, visit greenopportunities.org.

Erin Condo is a freelance writer and researcher, a songwriter and novice natural builder. While living in Asheville, she undertook the Green Jobs study, working with the YWCA, Green Opportunities and the Western North Carolina Green Building Council. She currently lives in central Pennsylvania and owns Ecovents, a green event-planning company.