Training ex-offenders for green jobs is essential for economic equity

Under the Climate & Equitable Jobs Act, work force hubs will work with local nonprofits to identify and train candidates, including returning residents, for training in clean energy jobs.

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A worker installs solar panel on an airport garage in New York City. A partnership developed under Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act will help ex-offenders train for green jobs.

A worker installs solar panel on an airport garage in New York City. A partnership developed under Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act will help ex-offenders train for green jobs.

Mary Altaffer/AP Photos

Nikia spent most of his adult life incarcerated. In 2022, he enrolled in the Peoria Adult Transition Center (PATC), which connects individuals involved with the justice system with local nonprofits and labor organizations for work force opportunities. Thanks to Nikia’s desire to improve his vocational skills and partnerships with organized labor, Nikia now has a new lease on life.

Nikia earned two associate degrees while at PATC and is now employed with a Midwest- based energy efficiency work force program that places graduates with full-time employment. After completing an “earn to learn” pre-apprenticeship program, Nikia is now working full-time in the energy sector, with a competitive benefits package, and above-average pay compared with the typical salary in the region.

It’s a success story that shows how Illinois is developing clean energy while providing more opportunity for returning citizens who are looking for and deserve a second chance to rebuild their lives.

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Today’s work force has a renewed bargaining power driven by a market in which open positions outnumber the available work force and the national unemployment rate sits at 3.4%. Partnerships with state and local labor federations and councils, and non-profits, are using this opportunity to create pathways to jobs for people who have been excluded from quality employment — jobs that provide competitive benefits, job security and equitable working conditions.

In 2021, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) to combat inequality and foster economic growth in the emerging clean energy sector. CEJA includes provisions for workers like Nikia who will benefit from equitable investments by the state through a “Climate Works Hub.” The hubs across Illinois will work with local nonprofits who act as workforce intermediaries and provide wraparound services to identify and train candidates, including returning residents.

Thanks to CEJA and the collective advocacy of organized labor, Illinois is investing $10 million a year in CEJA’s three statewide pre-apprenticeship programs. An additional $6 million annually will be reserved for a Returning Citizens grant program. This program will identify candidates seeking careers in the construction trades, who need to upskill to better ensure their success in the apprenticeships.

CEJA represents the first time in state history in which a broad-based effort, with adequate resources, is being made to train workers from historically disenfranchised communities in the clean energy sector. Unions across Illinois have sought to work with those who have been involved with the criminal justice system, but CEJA can be seen as a direct intervention to combat the poverty-to-prison pipeline.

As industries shift to clean energy, it’s critical that we provide career opportunities for communities riddled by economic inequality which tend to be disparately impacted by pollution. The Future Energy Jobs Act (2016) kicked off this discussion, but CEJA’s implementation has the power to build a workforce system that addresses the needs of our most vulnerable populations.

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The same communities that have been inundated with toxins are those in which potential workers tend to end up criminalized simply because they don’t have access to jobs — often they find themselves incarcerated for minor offenses and become involved in the justice system at a much higher rate than people in wealthier communities where jobs are more abundant.

We need to be frank that our nation’s economy is built on racial inequality, and organized labor is addressing this wider issue.

In a country where employment is often defined by management’s financial gain rather than employee well-being, organized labor, government, and allied business and nonprofit partners can use CEJA to level the playing field.

We can create a work force where workers have access to high-quality benefits, competitive pay, and sustainable jobs. CEJA addresses both the exposures to environmental threats and the legacy of economic inequality, by guaranteeing that our state’s most overlooked workers are first in line for good-paying, clean energy jobs.

Tim Drea is president and Chynna Hampton is equity director of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

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