Local industry leaders talk 'green' collar jobs

Gov. Christine Gregoire joined dozens of key industry leaders to focus on the creation of green-collar jobs while taking on climate change, during a recent symposium event at the Bellevue Club.

The forum was held by Sustainable September, a non-profit organization that promotes Eastside businesses and organizations committed to growing the local economy and practicing environmental stewardship.

Gregoire, who keynoted the event along with Peter Wilson, Google’s director of engineering, spoke about how the state is already on a green pathway.

Washington is becoming “a place where we create good, rewarding, green-collar jobs, while reducing our dependence on climate-changing fossil feuls,” she said.

To create this opportunity, Gregoire won legislative approval this year for the Climate Change Initiative, which aims to eventually wean the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

By the year 2020 and with the help of the Initiative, Gregoire hopes to deliver 25,000 new family-wage green jobs in the state.

But making sure the state has the skilled workforce to transform itself into a green economy will be the challenge, she added.

“We’re going to need the sheet metal workers, electricians and builders to meet the demand for green collar jobs,” she said.

It’s a complex topic, said Kathleen O’Brien, a nationally recognized expert in sustainable development and president of the Seattle-based O’Brien and Company, a sustainable building consultant firm.

“You’re dealing with educators and business folks coming from different perspectives,” she noted. “What (industry leaders) are trying to do is glean the common themes and solutions and feel that out to figure out what the next step is.”

During the event, industry professionals led break-out sessions that focused on building and site development, energy and utilities and green technology.

In the transportation sector, many leaders have focused on how to accommodate growth management, while meeting greenhouse gas emissions standards.

According to Kevin O’Neill, assistant director for Bellevue’s Transportation Department, one-third of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the transportation sector; in the Puget Sound, 50 percent of emissions come from transportation.

“So we have a particular challenge with trying to grow our economy, move people around and yet reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector,” he said.

It’s also been a challenge for companies to find skilled people with this green vision.

Rick Della, director of business management for the Kirkland-based Transpo Group, said his company is focused on intelligence transportation systems (ITS).

“The ITS world is very advanced and focused on how to bring solutions to the roadway and move all of our modes of travel effectively and efficiently outside of concrete and steel,” Della said, adding that it’s been an “ongoing process” trying to find those workers who think in those terms.

Co-founder of the Green Car Company in Bellevue, Susan Fahnestock said it has been a “serious challenge” trying to find technicians who can both do mechanical and electrical work.

To shift to technologies that will wean the industry from fossil fuel dependence, “we are going to rely greatly on the education systems to develop young technicians to feed the workforces, who are ultimately going to put all these great, highly engineered plans to reality,” said Jack Devine, senior instructor for the Automotive Department at Renton Technical College.

He noted that Renton Technical College is already ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing students for a greener industry.

Ellen Miller-Wolfe, Kirkland’s Economic Development manager, said the symposium event is a capstone of the month and hopes that Sustainable September will continue to keep the dialog going throughout the rest of the year.

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