The New Environmental Advocates: Chicago's Wilbur Wright College Helps Workers Turn Blue Collars to Green

By Kennel-Shank, Celeste | Sojourners Magazine, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The New Environmental Advocates: Chicago's Wilbur Wright College Helps Workers Turn Blue Collars to Green


Kennel-Shank, Celeste, Sojourners Magazine


Victoria Cooper can rattle off the challenges that green job training programs face as quickly as she can the reasons for excitement. Cooper, who directs environmental technology programs at Chicago's Wilbur Wright College, cautions that there's "no such thing as recession-proof jobs." Yet green workers will be required if the United States is to clean up the messes of global warming and pollution. "Everyone thinks this is a panacea and is going to change the world," Cooper said. "The reality is there's a lot of work to be done, and it's complicated."

Some places to start are the areas in which Wright College's programs prepare students: energy auditing, managing hazardous materials, alternative energy, and environmentally friendly construction. Cooper estimates that 90 percent of the program's graduates--22 so far since fall 2006, with 22 more students enrolled--are employed in jobs in which they use skills they learned at the school.

Buildings are a key area for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through cutting fossil-fuel use. Residential, commercial, and public buildings account for 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and consume 72 percent of the nation's electricity, according to the independent organization the U.S. Green Building Council. New buildings can be designed to be environmentally friendly. Older buildings can be made more energy efficient. Wright, a city college of Chicago, offers a building energy occupational technologies certificate to students who complete six courses on energy systems for commercial and residential buildings, the technical aspects of alternative and renewable energy sources, and building operation and maintenance.

Edwin Ayala, who graduated from Wright College in December, is working to improve new and old buildings. In February he was preparing for the test to qualify him to certify buildings through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. He is also a senior energy efficiency associate with Green Dream Group in Chicago, whose Web site says improving your building performance is "the greenest thing you can do."

Ayala's work includes helping clients cut their heating gas costs by depressurizing the home to find where air is seeping in from outside, then blocking those gaps with caulking and weather-stripping around doors. The idea of saving energy isn't a new one for Ayala. "Ever since I was a little kid, my dad used to teach us to weatherize windows," he said.

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Ayala was working in real estate when he read an article in the Chicago Tribune about green-collar jobs. He decided to enter Wright College's program and began in January 2008. "I did the right move at the right time," he laughs. Ayala hopes to someday get a master's degree in sustainable development. "Being a home energy auditor is a great way to start in a career," he said. "It's helping bring some stability and income in the meantime."

In developing the program and its curriculum, Wright College partnered with energy, architecture, and construction firms using the environmental technologies at construction sites. All of the faculty are practitioners in their fields. Some recruit students to Wright College's program from among their employees, while others have hired graduates.

The college is also part of the Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative, started in September 2007 as the idea of green jobs was taking off. The initiative is an alliance of business, educational, community, environmental, and labor groups, including the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance, Blacks In Green, and Arise Chicago, an affiliate of Interfaith Worker Justice.

Rev. C. J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, said initiative partners are coordinating efforts in anticipation of millions of dollars in funding being allocated for green jobs in Chicago.

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