California Forum

California’s workforce development and climate goals must go hand-in-hand

As we transition toward a clean energy economy, California must prioritize those most affected by the climate crisis. In our state, that means communities of color, who tend to be already overburdened with pollution and poverty. It also means that displaced and disadvantaged workers who stand on the precipice of a widening economic gap ought to have access to the resources they need to participate fully in a flourishing low-carbon economy.

As our state legislators and governor conclude the budget negotiation process, we are reminded that we have a responsibility to ensure our public dollars deliver environmental and economic equity.

Olivia Barbour knows the challenges of working in a declining industry.

After serving in the Air Force, she built jet planes for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach for years, but as the industry plummeted and her body’s ability to do heavy manufacturing work changed, workers like Olivia were left to their own to re-tool their skills in an entirely different economy.


Now, at 67, she struggles to find jobs suited for her, like many other older workers.

Olivia’s home is on Imperial Highway, near the busy 110 and 105 freeways in South Los Angeles. On hot days, the temperature, coupled with pollution in her neighborhood, worsens her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, affecting her ability to work. She then has to skip nebulizer treatments, which she needs daily.

In California, we have existing models that integrate targeted workforce development, retraining and standards into our climate change goals, but in order to meet the scale of our climate equity crisis we need to adequately fund these programs and expand them.

Gloria Walton.jpg
Building Skills Partnerships (BSP) Green Janitors Program

The Green Janitors program has trained over a thousand janitors statewide who are now LEED certified. Janitors not only gain marketable skills to meet the energy and water efficiency goals of high-performance buildings, but they gain sustainability insights they can apply in their communities.

Janitors like Casilda De Jesus bring what they learn home about composting, energy and water conservation. De Jesus now unplugs her TV, radio and other appliances when she’s not using them, recognizing them as “energy vampires,” and urges her neighbors to report water leaks. And she feels much more at ease using green cleaning detergents instead of breathing in toxic chemicals, particularly since she has asthma.

David Huerta.jpg

In this year’s budget, Gov. Gavin Newsom aims to direct funds to support the sustainability of this program and expand the model to additional low-carbon sectors of the economy. Newsom’s budget acknowledges the need for worker transition programs to ensure that unlike what happened with the aerospace and auto industry in Los Angeles, workers in fossil fuel industries have the financial and educational support they need to successfully transition to alternative, professionally fulfilling employment.

Through strong “high-road” industry partnerships that leverage existing resources and a worker transition fund, California can deliver worker justice in service of a sustainable economy. Newsom’s support for these programs represents a monumental step towards achieving these goals here in California and models the solutions we need in other states.

Moving forward, our groups are committed to seeing workers and community members involved in implementation of these training programs and the worker transition fund to ensure that climate and worker justice reaches those who need it the most.

Gloria Walton is the president and CEO of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) and David Huerta is the president of SEIU-United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW).
Related stories from Sacramento Bee