Illinois prioritizes equitable access to green jobs on its path to 100% clean energy

Where the green jobs are in the Prairie State and how to get the skills needed for them

WorkingNation’s Green Jobs Now series is looking at green jobs opportunities and the skills needed
to get those jobs across the country with a series of state-by-state reports. Next: Illinois.

“We can’t outrun or hide from climate change. There is no time to lose. Illinois is taking action in the fight to stop and even reverse the damage that’s been done to our climate.” With those words, Gov. JB Pritzker signed the state’s ambitious Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) last fall.

CEJA aims to get the state to 100% clean energy by 2050. Not only does it address climate change, it also includes significant workforce development components, including an emphasis on building a more diverse workforce with equitable access to the skills needed to get green jobs.

“Illinois is a force for good, for an environmental future we can be proud of. With economic growth and jobs woven into its fabric, this new law is the most significant step Illinois has taken in a generation toward a reliable, renewable, affordable, and clean energy future in a generation,” the governor added.

“It used to be called the Rust Belt. [Illinois] is moving on an industrial scale from the past to the future by way of a green transition,” says Paula DiPerna, a consultant to WorkingNation on the green economy and a special advisor to CDP, a nonprofit that works with its members to manage their environmental impacts.

“The science of climate change has now become almost universally disseminated,” notes DiPerna who says green jobs are more noticeable. “Once you start thinking about it, you suddenly see it everywhere.”

Green Jobs Growth in the Prairie State

“Green jobs have shown stability in Illinois in recent years,” according to our new Green Jobs Now: Illinois report, a WorkingNation and Emsi Burning Glass analysis of the green labor market in the state.

“The strong uptick in green job demand in 2021 in Illinois is an indication that the green economy in the state is strengthening. Coupled with projected demand above the national average for the next five years, there is a promising outlook for green jobs in the state.”

The report projects, in that timeframe, employment for green jobs in the state will increase by 6.5% and it finds there was demand last year for more than 9,000 new green workers in the state with the current green workforce estimated at more than 30,700.

Industries like utilities and manufacturing may be familiar sectors with green jobs, but according to the report, “We see surprising industries such as professional, scientific, and technical services coming up as having the highest demand for green workers in Illinois.” Software developers and business management analysts are among the types of occupations in this industry.

The report notes, “While we see demand across Illinois for green workers, the greatest concentration is in the Chicago metro area with 71.5% of all green job postings in 2021.”

What’s a Green Job?

It’s not always easy to recognize a green job. Some are obvious – think wind turbine technician – and some are defined by their proximity to businesses in pursuit of a cleaner, greener economy.

In our Green Jobs Now reports, we look at four different categories when we break down the opportunities in the green jobs ecosystem.

Core jobs are those “with a primary responsibility associated with the green economy.” The data indicates the top core green job in Illinois is a solar sales representative.

Enabled jobs have “primary responsibilities separate or tangential to the green economy” with a building and general maintenance technician identified as the primary job.

Not to be confused with enabled jobs, enabling jobs “aren’t associated with green tech per se, but they support the green economy.”

The report says, “Green enabling jobs run the gamut… In all, over 96 different specialized occupations were represented in the jobs identified as green enabling in Illinois in 2021.”

Green Jobs Now: Illinois finds there are just under two million workers in Illinois who could be green workers. These are “workers who are likely able to be upskilled at a lower cost, and on a shorter time horizon, for employment in a green job.” Among those who could make that transition to the green economy are laborer/warehouse worker, retail sales associate, and cashier.

The skills that are most directly tied to core green jobs and are in the greatest demand for the state’s green economy include those in carbon reduction and energy audits.

Jobs with green skills can command boosts in annual salary. The report says, “The top occupations across the green jobs ecosystem range from solar installers to alternative energy managers to production workers. In many of these roles, green skills offer significant average annual salary boosts of $1,700 or more, with some roles commanding a boost upwards of $4,000.”

According to the data, the average green jobs salary in Illinois is $67,336.

Equity: Front and Center in the Green Economy
Sylvia Garcia, director, Illinois DCEO (Photo: DCEO)

The bill sees the further transition to a greener economy as an opportunity to invest in training a diverse workforce for the jobs of the future, both near and distant.

“By being called the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, it really thinks about the equity component and how we meet folks where they are and give them a variety of career path and entry points along the way,” says Sylvia Garcia, director, Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).

Among the specifics in the bill:

  • Creates an Energy Transition Workforce Commission to report on anticipated impacts of transitioning to a clean energy economy and recommend changes to the workforce through 2050.
  • Creates a Clean Jobs Workforce Network Hubs Program, establishing 13 program delivery hub sites that leverage community-based organizations to ensure members of equity-focused populations have dedicated and sustained support to enter and complete the career pipeline for clean energy and related sector jobs.
  • Establishes Energy Transition Navigators to provide education, outreach, and recruitment to equity-focused populations to ensure they are aware of workforce development programs.
Delmar Gillus, Jr., COO, Elevate (Photo: Kristen Norman/ CityLab)

Historically, Black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted by climate change. The bill addresses this by putting equitable access to green jobs at the forefront of its goals.

“As you look through the 900-plus pages of CEJA, one of the things that you’ll quickly notice is that there’s not just an equity section and then there’s the rest of the bill. Every section in the legislation has provisions that are supporting environmental justice communities, creating jobs, making sure that the provisions work for everybody,” says Delmar Gillus, Jr., chief operating officer, Elevate, a nonprofit working to “make the benefits and services of the clean energy economy accessible to everyone.”

Gillus points out there are many supporting jobs that are important to the green sector. “When you start building the workforce, you’re going to need more accountants, lawyers, anything from procurement, equipment manufacturing, all of those things are going to be part of this economy.”

Creating Jobs and Protecting Workers
Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer, Illinois AFL-CIO (Photo: Illinois AFL-CIO)

The landmark climate and jobs bill signed by Gov. Pritzker in September has the support of the state’s labor leaders. “We’re creating literally tens of thousands of new jobs in the green energy space,” says Pat Devaney, secretary treasurer, Illinois AFL-CIO. The union represents some 900,000 workers and 1,500 affiliates across the state.

Devaney is one of the union leaders at the head of Climate Jobs Illinois, a coalition of labor organizations and policy makers which helped shape the legislation. CEJA is expected to preserve already-existing union jobs while creating thousands more. He says that the legislation provided the types of reforms that people in Illinois wanted to see around utilities and around renewable energy credits and it “got Illinois on its path to renewable energy generation and protected our nuclear fleet.”

There are six nuclear power stations in Illinois, employing tens of thousands of workers, while generating 90% of the clean energy and 50% of all energy consumed in the state. Shortly after the legislation became law, Exelon announced it was investing more than $300 million in capital improvements at two of its Illinois power stations which had been slated to close, and was ready to hire 650 new workers.

“We’re creating good-paying jobs that will move people into the middle class or help them ascend within it, as opposed to what we’ve seen in the past and in other states –  creating more low-road jobs where people have difficulty getting by and supporting a family,” he adds.

“The bill spends a total of $180 million in other types of workforce development programs specifically aimed around equity. We’re working really hard to make sure that workforce reflects the diverse nature of our state, as well as the communities within it,” says Devaney.

“We were able to secure $10 million for three different pre-apprenticeship programs located throughout the state to recruit and prepare workers – particularly a diverse workforce – for entering our apprenticeship programs and receiving the training around renewable energy development as well as other skills that prepare them for a career in the construction industry.”

With its history of fossil fuels, Devaney says it’s been important to engage the union membership. “The first real piece that we did with our affiliates was an education piece and an acknowledgement that, ‘Hey, we believe climate change is a thing and we know we need to transition to a greener energy economy.’”

“We had that difficult conversation with our affiliates that have significant exposure, a lot of members that work in fossil generation. We all, as a group, sat down and said, ‘Here’s what we need to do. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also economically in our members’ best interest because this transition is going to be happening with or without us.’”

Parts of CEJA are directed at workers who will be transitioning out of the energy industry.

  • Requires DCEO to establish a grant program to award grants to promote economic development in eligible, transitioning communities.
  • Requires DCEO, in collaboration with IDES, to implement a displaced worker bill of rights that provides benefits to displaced energy workers.
  • Requires DCEO to administer a transition scholarship program to support youth who are deterred from attending or completing an educational program at an Illinois institution of higher education because of his or her parent’s layoff from a retiring power plant.
Pathways to Green Jobs

CEJA’s establishment of workforce hubs throughout the state will help create a more equitable talent pipeline by leveraging the services of community-based organizations.

DCEO’s Garcia says this allows the inclusion of populations who are often overlooked. “There are programs looking at folks like youth who are at the beginning of their career, folks that may be mid-career, how to change careers, returning citizens, underrepresented groups, disadvantaged populations. Really trying to think about how these jobs are opportunities for everybody to find a good paying job.”

She notes the state is currently working to standardize the services, curriculum, and credentials that will be available to job seekers through these hubs.

Elevate’s Gillus says stakeholder involvement was crucial in the crafting of CEJA. “We, early in the process, made it extremely clear that equity was going to be at the center of the bill. One of the things you heard from our grassroots members was, ‘No equity. No bill.’”

While people learn new skills for good jobs, it’s also important to recognize that they also have to manage their lives, explains Gillus. “It’s one thing to train people to do clean energy jobs. It’s another thing to actually help them get a job, provide them support, provide them childcare, provide them uniforms, provide them tools, provide them transportation assistance, follow up with the employers on retention issues and support issues.”

Gillus says, “We actually built into the law that when companies apply for funding, they have to meet certain diversity goals.”

“If companies want to get incentive dollars, they need to hire from the workforce programs. So, we’re not setting up these dead-end training programs that we’ve all seen before in Black and brown communities. And everybody’s like, ‘There’s no work here.’”

Opportunity in and for the Community

Gillus says, “Another thing that we really try to do is empower communities to support these programs. For instance, there are Black and brown companies that actually do solar training that understand workers in environmental justice communities.”

One such program is Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy, founded by CEO Christopher Williams. As a third-generation electrician, Williams – who describes himself as “a very energy-conscious person” – continued his learning by studying renewable energy and sustainability at program in nearby Wisconsin.

(Photo: Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy)

Founded in 2017, Millennium provides professional training for photovoltaic solar electric and energy efficiency training. Under the guidelines of previous legislation – the Future Energy Jobs Act (FEJA) – the organization focuses on training low-income people, including people of color, those with involvement in the justice system, people who have been in the foster care system, women, and veterans. According to Williams, the program has trained hundreds of students.

(Photo: Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy)

He says the program recognizes that students enter the program with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. “We try to work with students with the skills that they already have.” He notes that there are several directions a student might go – electrician, installer, design technician, project manager, sales associate.

Williams recalls a graduate of the program who had previously worked as a hairdresser. “She said, ‘You were so passionate. If you could be so passionate, I just wanted to have some of that passion, too.’ When she got on top of that roof, she said a feeling just came over her and she just knew she was in the right place. Right now, she is an assistant foreman.”

Christopher Williams, CEO, Millennium Solar Electric Training Academy

Bringing his community access to opportunity is one of the reasons that motivates Williams. “I’m one of the contractors out here who started 15 years ago and there wasn’t a workforce. So, I’m looking at projects and I’m bidding on projects and I realized that I’m the only one in my community that can do it.”

“I knew this was coming and I was telling people, ‘The train is coming and we’ve got to get on this train. We can’t allow it just to ride by our communities and not be part of it,” says Williams. “It’s very important for the Black and brown and any minority to be involved with any type of projects. That’s why my job as a trainer became more important than a contractor.”

‘Sustainability, for us, is everything’

“What we do is divert usable building materials from the landfill,” says Anne Nicklin, director of workforce training and deconstruction services at the Rebuilding Exchange – which goes into buildings, typically homes, and deconstructs materials – cabinets, lighting fixtures, doorknobs, among other items.

Anne Nicklin, director of workforce training and deconstruction services, Rebuilding Exchange (Photo: Rebuilding Exchange)

But that is just one part of the organization’s mission. Nicklin explains, “We have two warehouses that sell salvaged building materials, everything is donated. We provide an educational component for our community through workshops on how to build things, how to repair your home, how to basically get more in contact with the built environment, and how to manage it. And a huge and growing part of our organization is our workforce training program.”

The program focuses on people who have barriers to employment and has multiple paid training opportunities.

Training Options

Rebuilding Exchange recently launched a pre-apprenticeship training program that’s being funded by a grant from the state of Illinois. Nicklin says, “We are slated to enroll and serve 70 individuals in the pre-apprenticeship this year across at least five cohorts.”

She continues, “It’s going to be really cool. It’s an eight-week program – really heavy certifications, a lot of time in the workshop, lots of construction, math, really trying to fast track individuals into apprenticeship programs.”

“What we typically recognize as unions – carpentry, plumbers, laborers – those are fantastically well-defined building trades, careers that do pay a living wage, have a clear ladder of how you can become expert in your field, and how you can have a sustained living wage for the rest of your career.”

The eight-week pre-apprenticeship program is putting its early focus on laborers and plumbers. Regarding laborers, Nicklin says, “Because there’s more there, I’m playing a numbers game.”

“The other [trade] that I’m concentrating on is plumbers. There’s a huge effort – both with the Infrastructure Bill money, as well as with the ARPA money that’s come down – to replace lead pipes here in the Chicagoland area. We know there’s going to be a huge demand for plumbers and pipefitters in our local area.”

Nicklin explains there is another training opportunity that is a 20-week transitional employment program. “Instruction is basically just a sustainable alternative to demolition where we systematically dismantle either entire buildings or sometimes it’ll be just a kitchen. We dismantle these pieces and instead of crushing everything with sledgehammers and trashing it, we take it apart and we sell it. Building materials don’t really wear out. Those are kind of the definition of durable goods.”

(Photo: Rebuilding Exchange)

Nicklin says one crew is out in the field doing the deconstruction work and a second crew works in the warehouses where the salvaged materials are sold. “They do a lot of customer service. They work with POS [point of sale], they work with inventory. They get an opportunity to also deal heavily with building materials but learn it from a different perspective.”

(Photo: Rebuilding Exchange)

She says, “Of all our graduates over the last 3 years, about 60% continue to work in construction/sustainability fields.”

Continued Training Pathway

One of those students to come out of the Rebuilding Exchange is a woman named Linda who applied for the program in 2018 after a significant history working in retail. She explains, “I had been out of work for quite a while and wasn’t really happy with that.”

She heard about the Rebuilding Exchange and decided to apply. “I had done some vocational schooling and stuff like that. I went in and interviewed, and basically was taken on.”

Linda says learning how to deconstruct a house or room was all very new to her. “I found it to be exciting as well as a really good resource for people who are looking to renovate.”

After completing her training with the Rebuilding Exchange, Linda transitioned into training with Fixer.com, a premium, handy service based in Chicago with additional locations in Dallas, Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix.

Linda of Fixer (Photo: Fixer.com)

Fixer describes itself as a paid program “that prepares our future Fixers to safely and expertly tackle a huge range of home repair tasks – from holes in walls to leaky toilets and everything in between. The curriculum consists of over 800 hours of training, starting with classroom hours, lab-based practicum units, testing, and peer review. This is followed by an additional 6-18 months of mentorship and apprenticeship, learning from senior Fixers in the field.”

WorkingNation is not using Linda’s last name to respect her privacy. The company does not make public the full names of the “Fixers” who visit homes to perform handywork.

Tracy Cupper, the company’s chief operating officer, says working with people who have come out of the Rebuilding Exchange program has its benefits. “They have a previous exposure to the house, the construction, and how things are constructed. Just by taking something apart in a respectful manner, you realize how it’s put together.”

Regarding environmental practices, Cupper says, “Fixer is very concerned about sustainability and our work is part of a larger movement around repairing things instead of replacing things. It’s really important that we give the option to repair something and that’s contributing overall to a greener planet.”

Tracy Cupper, chief operating officer, Fixer (Photo: Fixer.com)

Cupper also notes that the goal for the company’s Fixers is that they grow in their careers. “As we grow, more opportunities grow. We started a fixer management structure. We have opportunities in the training program to be able to be a trainer.”

“We also want to give our employees opportunities to have careers outside of Fixer. What we want to do is take them from an entry-level position to working with other organizations or contractors, or starting their own business, or finding something else where they fit in well.”

Linda is thinking about her next steps as she gains increasing knowledge as a Fixer. “At some point, a friend of mine and myself are looking to help to create housing for the homeless. She’s looking to me for the design, help with the maintenance, and getting that kind of thing organized. We’re looking to have communities of  affordable housing because what is lacking is nice affordable housing.”

A Green Future

Garcia is optimistic about her state’s green future. “Under Gov. Pritzker’s leadership, I think we in the state of Illinois are well-suited and in a great position to usher in the clean energy revolution. I think we’ve done a great job of having a thoughtful approach to preparing our workforce and are really excited about the opportunities that this brings for the Illinois economy and all the folks that call Illinois home.”

The Rebuilding Exchange’s Nicklin is proud to create access and opportunity to people who have been historically underrepresented in the green sector. “Environmental justice is a very welcome title. And I would hope that we part of the legacy of environmental justice.”

WorkingNation producer Deidra White contributed to the reporting in this article.