Pennsylvania is a ‘window on the future’ of the green economy

Larger investments in green infrastructure create growing need for workers with green skills

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. Up first: Pennsylvania.

There is no question the green economy is already bigger than most people think, and it’s growing. Job opportunities are out there, if you know where to look.

One person already working in Philadelphia’s green economy is Pedro Soto. Seven years ago, Soto’s sister-in-law suggested he apply to PowerCorpsPHL, a green jobs training program. He says she told him, “‘Why don’t you try this? It’s training. This is something to build off of.'”

“When I came into PowerCorps, I realized, ‘Wow, I can work outside. This is something I can do,’” Soto tells us. “I even had a mentor who is Hispanic. That just blew my mind because I didn’t know that was a possibility like, ‘Wow, somebody who looks like me is actually working in this field and is making a decent-to-great living.’”

We’ll get back to Soto’s journey a little later. But, he’s not alone. Many people don’t realize that the opportunities to join the green workforce are within reach.

Unlocking Green Jobs in the Keystone State

“The fabric of the economy is becoming greener by the day. There are emerging green technologies, larger investments in green infrastructure, and renewed efforts to mitigate climate change in the United States and beyond that are building momentum for a global green revolution. However, with new support for green initiatives and technologies comes a new need for workers with green skills,” according to our new Green Jobs Now: Pennsylvania report, a WorkingNation and Emsi Burning Glass analysis of the green labor market in the state.

Our report estimates there are nearly 30,000 people in the current Pennsylvania green jobs workforce and, last year alone, there was a demand for more than 7,000 new workers in a broad range of jobs within nearly every sector of the state’s economy.

The Keystone State is just getting started. We project that in the next five years, employment demand for green jobs will increase by 6.4%, ahead of the national average of 5.7%, according to the data analyzed by Emsi Burning Glass for our report.

“As the potential for positive environmental impact spreads across a wide range of industries, this will give rise to a new class of green workers who can design, install, and maintain a green infrastructure. These workers will be critical to enabling the shift to a greener economy,” again, quoting the report.

Many of those new jobs will have familiar titles and require skills similar to the ones workers already have. But, some of the jobs will call for a bit of retraining. Green Jobs Now: Pennsylvania finds there are more than 1.5 million workers in the state who could learn new skills to give them access to the growing number of green jobs.

These workers come from a variety of different occupations and educational backgrounds. The report suggests that workers who can easily transition into the green talent pool include laborer/warehouse workers, tractor-trailer truck drivers, and sales representatives.

Patrick Clancy, president and CEO, Philadelphia Works (Photo: Philadelphia Works)

Pennsylvania is doing a great job working to build long-term economies, according to Patrick Clancy, president and CEO of Philadelphia Works, the city’s workforce development board. “This is a great opportunity for us and we can’t miss this chance to get many more people back into the workforce, back into career pathways. An opportunity for individuals to build their skills, diversify their experience and really have long-term, well-paying jobs.”

Clancy says, “What we’re seeing with both the green job movement and with infrastructure is two worlds colliding together. We know that the money will go to projects that are sorely needed. Individuals will be able to be upskilled or trained for the first time to really get into occupations that really haven’t been available to them.”

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 –puts it this way: “When it comes to the green economy, Pennsylvania is a window on the future.”

What the Green Jobs Economy Looks Like

There is no single definition of what a green job is. Emsi Burning Glass defines a green job using certain characteristics and criteria. Using the definitions below, the report tracked job postings in Pennsylvania and found there were more than 7,000 jobs that fell into the broader green jobs definition in 2021. The report also found there was a very high demand for green workers in manufacturing, utilities, and construction.

Last year, the need for green enabled skills was significant with more than 4,500 job openings in Pennsylvania, according to the report. By green enabled, the report means “workers in roles that are not considered green by default but require green skills.” Among them – building and general maintenance technician, and several different engineering roles.

“Demand for core green jobs has been increasing, and in 2021 leveled around 1,300 jobs per year,” cites the report. Core green jobs are those “with a primary responsibility associated with the green economy.” The findings found demand for occupations including solar sales representative and alternative energy manager.

Not to be confused with green enabled jobs, the need for green enabling occupations has almost doubled since 2018 to just over 1,100 positions. These are jobs that may be at companies with a green focus, but the actual tasks of the occupations are not necessarily considered green. For example, the report points to an accountant at a solar energy business.

Higher Wages for Those With Green Skills

Having green skills can lead to higher wages for those in core green and green enabled jobs. The report says, “Skills related to energy efficiency, renewable energy, and other green specializations are in-demand and offer significant salary boosts.”

An example, “An electrician who has green skills and competencies could make $5,000 per year more than average for the occupation in Pennsylvania, far outpacing the national average increase for green skills in this position of $1,200 per year.”

The report notes that the average green jobs salary in Pennsylvania is more than $63,500 — while the overall annual salary in the state is just over $62,000.

Stakeholder Recommendations

For individuals, the Green Jobs Now: Pennsylvania report suggests, “If you are just starting your training, or new to the workforce, consider looking at careers in green fields of interest to you. If you are an existing worker, understand the green jobs that rely on some of the skills you currently possess.”

It’s recommended that employers, “Focus on reskilling your workers in green skills. To do this effectively, first identify the jobs across your organization and industry that are most likely to be impacted by emerging green technologies and trends…”

Policymakers are advised, “Invest in workers who can gain green skills… Invest in training programs that focus on green skills, and couple investments in green infrastructure with investments in training…”  Related to this point, the recently passed trillion-dollar federal infrastructure bill includes $11.3 billion for abandoned-mine reclamation and cleanup over the next 15 years. Pennsylvania is set to receive $253 million annually, according to estimates from the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center.

Making Green Jobs a Reality

According to our WorkingNation/MISI green jobs national report, released earlier this month, “The U.S. green economy and the jobs generated by it are much larger and more important than is generally realized.” DiPerna agrees. “It’s a huge opportunity. The big story is that if you value the environment, there will be a tremendous jobs creation benefit to that.”

Julia Hillengas, co-founder and executive director, PowerCorpsPHL (Photo: PowerCorpsPHL)

One organization impacting that job growth is PowerCorpsPHL, founded in 2013. In collaboration with AmeriCorps, PowerCorpsPHL trains young adults, ages 18 to 30, for jobs in green infrastructure, clean energy, and community-based careers.

Julia Hillengas, co-founder and executive director of PowerCorpsPHL, says, “What has been on the map in Philadelphia, before anyone else in the nation, are things like green infrastructure – managing water pollution, managing flooding, managing all the issues with an aging water infrastructure through green practices.”

Hillengas is a member of an advisory group for a report recently published by the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia (SBN). It states, “The U.S. Clean Water Act defines green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) as plant and soil systems designed to reduce the flow of stormwater before it pollutes our waterways.”

Unlike rain in natural areas, like forests, the report notes, “When it rains in developed areas like cities, suburbs, rural towns, and farmland, the water cannot be absorbed in the same way, so it ‘runs off,’ carrying all the trash, bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants from our streets, roofs, and farmland directly into our rivers and streams.”

The report notes that infrastructure jobs address these environmental issues and also offer advancement for workers. “GSI provides family-supporting jobs and accessible career advancement opportunities for people with all levels of education and work experience.”

PowerCorps PHL: Phase One

The PowerCorpsPHL program consists of two phases. Hillengas explains, “[Phase One] is like the traditional model of a crew that’s working together on a big green space or public works project. People are learning basic work readiness skills, how to show up on time every day, how to be reliable, how to work on a team, how to problem solve.”

Pedro Soto, project coordinator, PowerCorpsPHL (Photo: PowerCorpsPHL)

That Phase One work – which lasts four months – might involve removal of non-native plants, clearance of trail corridors, planting trees, and learning how to use hand tools. When unusable wood is cleared, it’s taken to the organic recycling center where it’s turned into mulch, wood chips, and compost.

Good, solid wood can be used to craft small carpentry projects like tables and benches which are donated or used internally.

Remember Pedro Soto? He went through the PowerCorpsPHL program in 2015. At the time, he was just out of high school and got hooked right away.

“The training is really engaging. It’s really hands-on. Corps is like, ‘Get your hands dirty. Get in there. Try it.”

Soto is now employed as the project coordinator with PowerCorpsPHL. He works with members who are in the first phase of the program, conducting training, and connecting the participants with partners.

PowerCorpsPHL: Phase Two

After completion of the first phase, members can continue with the program and apply for a fellowship that places them with employer partners.

Hillengas says another opportunity is participation in one of the career academies, which include Green Infrastructure and Urban Forestry. She says, “They can apply to our industry academies which are very sector-specific, driven technical tracks and go much deeper into specific careers.”

Academy training can last from six months to a year depending on the skills needed to enter the specific industry. The nonprofit runs two cohorts per year, working annually with about 125 participants.

Employers play a crucial role in the program’s progression. “We are very blessed to have employer partners,” says Hillengas.

“Not only are they hiring, but they’re helping us co-design trainings. We are training exactly to what we know the industry standard is and what companies have available positions. We don’t want to train you for something that no one is hiring for.”

Hillengas is proud to note that 90% of graduates move straight into employment after fully completing their PowerCorpsPHL training.

(Photos: PowerCorpsPHL)
You Work with Trees and That’s a Job?’

“Traditionally, the conservation space, environmental space is predominantly white, predominantly male,” Hillengas points out.

“That’s not the composition of our staff or our Corps members. That’s definitely a conversation that’s daily and present – and one that we have to be brave enough to have with our employer partners to say, ‘Hey, we’re trying to open up opportunities for everyone.’”

Soto says, “When I tell people that I work in the green space, it just blows their minds. They’re like, ‘You work with trees and that’s a job? You can get paid? That’s a sustainable thing? You can live off of that? A lot of people just don’t understand that the options are available to them.”

Our mission is to keep building materials out of landfills’

Revolution Recovery provides recycling services to the construction, manufacturing, commercial, and residential markets. With locations in Philadelphia, Allentown, and New Castle, Delaware, Revolution Recovery collects and receives construction and manufacturing waste from around the region, including southeastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware.

Jon Wybar, managing member, Revolution Recovery (Photo: Revolution Recovery)

Jon Wybar, managing member of Revolution Recovery, explains the company, itself, does not generate ready-for-market products. “We have three recycling plants and 30 trucks. The trucks collect [the waste] and the plants process it. We pull out the recyclable materials we’re targeting, produce some primary processing in preparation to send them on to secondary recyclers or manufacturers. The rest we transfer to the landfill.”

Cardboard is recycled for new cardboard. Wood becomes several products, notably mulch. And different types of plastic are recycled into new plastic products.

Another waste product is drywall, notes Wybar. “It’s processed into a soil amendment. It’s a soil fertilizer and conditioner. It’s got calcium and sulfur. The paper gets screened off and it gets ground fine. Then you spread it onto a farm field.”

‘We’re rolling out the red carpet’

With just over 100 employees, Wybar explains the wide range of positions in the company. “Most of our workforce is labor. They’re running machines, forklifts, balers, grinders, and picking, separating, and processing materials. We have drivers. We have mechanics. Dispatch is taking the orders, matching up the orders with the trucks, and routing the trucks. We have accounting. We have sales. We have safety. We have management.”

Wybar says the demand for talent is high. “You don’t have to have any skills to start. Especially now in the labor crunch, it’s tough to find people. We’re rolling out the red carpet for anybody.”

Currently, the company is looking for the positions that fall into the category of labor, like forklift operators and balers, says Wybar.

Box truck and roll off drivers are needed and Wybar notes that the company will help box truck drivers advance to roll off drivers by assisting them in obtaining their commercial driver’s licenses.

Mechanics are also in demand, as they work on the trucks, machines, and the conveyors.

(Photos: Revolution Recovery)

Wybar says it’s important that the company is a source of jobs creation and highlights that there is internal opportunity. “Nothing makes us happier than to promote from within. I’d like to think that in those labor jobs, our ability to retain people is off the charts.”

He adds that he has conversations with others in the industry and hears the turnover rates are often very high. “They just run through people. They’re just a line item. We invest huge amounts in our people with time and resources and try to bring opportunity and the best pay we can.”

Redefining Industrial Growth
Paula DiPerna, consultant to WorkingNation (Photo: DiPerna)

DiPerna, our WorkingNation consultant on the green economy, tells us that we should keep a close eye on Pennsylvania. “It’s a pivotal, transitional state moving from traditional industrial activities to alternatives. Pennsylvania is trying to move towards a new definition of industrial growth in terms of transitioning from being dependent on an economy that flows from the use of fossil fuels to one that flows from alternatives.”

Tom Foley, Ph.D., an energy historian and deputy policy director at the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, agrees. “It’s a state of innovation, particularly in the energy industry. Pennsylvania led through the development of the coal industry, the petroleum industry, an early adopter of nuclear technology to generate electricity. It’s always been on that leading edge.”

“The green economy is important for Pennsylvania, the U.S., and the world because it is growing in terms of jobs, new infrastructure, investment opportunities. As a historian, I think the green economy is a key part of building a sustainable — in both the economic as well as the ecological sense — and resilient economy for all workers, businesses, and consumers,” he tells our colleagues at the Work Green, Earn Green WorkingNation podcast.

Wybar offers a big picture view, “The most important reason that we, as a society, need to better manage our materials is to prevent the extraction of new, raw materials. Every bit of steel or copper or plastic that we can recycle is that much less iron ore that needs to be blasted out of the ground and then melted down, or barrel of oil that needs to be extracted to make new plastic.”

Hillengas points out that among the benefits of green infrastructure are new jobs, new businesses, new contracts for small businesses, and more green space that helps mitigate air pollution and flooding.

She notes the industry is of significance to everyone. “We all need [infrastructure] to have our houses stay up, to have our roads be drivable, to have access to broadband. All the things that we want from our day-to-day lives as humans, infrastructure is the backbone and foundation for that.”

Clancy says people are trying to find meaning in their lives. “I think looking at where we are right now, our unique picture of COVID, and how people’s lives have changed so quickly, that there’s a certain thankfulness for what we have.”

“I think that breeds the idea of let’s be a good steward of, not just public land and public resources, but how do we build better jobs? If we can do that in a way that weaves in good mission and good opportunity, I think we all win,” he says.

And Soto offers up a personal perspective about the impact of the green sector. “I had an interviewee who was trying to get into PowerCorps. We were able to plant a little bit of trees and he wanted to come back, write a little tag, and name the tree. That’s how much that meant to him because he didn’t think that’s something he could do. It’s people taking ownership of the environment — ‘I planted this tree. Now this is my area.’”

Read our WorkingNation/Emsi Burning Glass Green Jobs Now: Pennsylvania report here.

Get our latest articles, videos, and podcasts
sharing solutions to today's workforce challenges.

Sign Up to Recieve Our Newsletter