Edgar Perez fits a hose from a truck containing used vegetable grease into a ceiling-high tank holding methanol and sodium hydroxide. His timing in releasing the hose’s content is key to whether the mixture will produce bio-diesel fuel to power fleets of “green” trucks and buses. It also is key to Perez’ self-esteem. The 22-year-old Oakland resident with a high school education had been working in construction, living contract to contract, until he heard about this job at Blue Sky Bio-fuels Inc., one of Oakland’s green businesses.

The job, Perez said, “makes me feel like I’m part of something and I’m improving myself every day.”

Perez could be the poster child of a movement started in Oakland and then advocated in presidential campaign speeches and tucked into federal energy legislation: Train at-risk youth and people stuck in low-end jobs or joblessness to work in the millions of manual labor “green economy” jobs that are emerging as this country tries to reduce global warming.

“We call it green pathways out of poverty – connect the people who most need the work with the work that most needs to be done,” said Van Jones, the Oakland social justice worker who started the Oakland Green Jobs Corps as well as the national Green for All campaign gaining cross-country attention.

Both the local and national programs are establishing job readiness training programs for unskilled workers so they can get jobs in such green industries as solar, bio-diesel and wind-energy. The jobs include installing solar panels, weatherizing buildings and maintenance tasks at alternative fuel utilities.

The aim is to offer these training programs in the inner city and in forgotten rural and once-industrial towns where idleness and crime have replaced factory work.

The Oakland Green Jobs Corps program won a $250,000 grant last summer from the Oakland City Council’s environmental fund to start the program and pay for some apprenticeships. With that money, the Corps solicited bids from job training programs and community colleges to run the job readiness program. Those bids are being evaluated, and by midsummer the chosen agency will be ready to recruit and train its first group of green-collar workers. The Corps also formed a Green Employer Council of local green businesses to advise on curriculum and provide apprenticeships. The 12 employers include green construction firms, solar companies, alternative fuel providers and others.

Oakland’s program inspired U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, to bring the idea to the national level. Jones helped her develop a bill for Congress and he formed the national Green for All Campaign to rally support. It worked: Congress passed a 2007 Energy Bill that included $125 million for green-collar job training.

Oakland’s plan also caught the attention of Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former candidate John Edwards, who all talked in campaign speeches about providing green-collar job training programs. Clinton co-sponsored the Senate’s version of the green-collar jobs amendment that made its way into the 2007 Energy Bill. Obama, campaigning in February in the manufacturing belt of the Midwest, proposed a 10-year, $150 million green-collar jobs program.

The coming change

Environmentalists say that if global warming is to be slowed, it will take wholesale change in how electricity is generated, how people travel and how they heat and cool their houses. That means installing hundreds of millions of solar panels, building thousands of wind farms and geothermal plants, engineering new ways to derive energy from renewable sources and weatherizing millions of homes. Green companies are rapidly hiring new workers and indications are they will continue.

“The question is,” Jones said, “will the new green wave lift all boats or will there be ecological apartheid, ecological haves and have-nots, whether this particular economic boom will ultimately include working class people of color and economic untouchables.”

Unquestionably, investment is pouring into the renewable energy sector and green, clean businesses.

Worldwide investment in green and clean technologies, renewable energy and energy efficiency grew 60 percent last year to a $148 billion, according to figures published in February by New Energy Finance Summit in London. The tally includes all kinds of investment – from businesses expanding their operations to venture capitalists investing in start-ups and governments funding renewable energy projects.

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