Women at work

Are women getting left behind in the green job economy?

Jenny Erwin, of the U.S Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, before the Women in Green Jobs roundtable held in Reno on Nov. 10.

Jenny Erwin, of the U.S Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, before the Women in Green Jobs roundtable held in Reno on Nov. 10.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

For more about the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, visit www.dol.gov/wb.
A link to the Shriver Report, “A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything,” can be found at www.americanprogress.org.

As part of the economic recovery act, President Obama allocated at least $60 billion to create green jobs. It’s an endeavor Nevada is poised to benefit from, given its vast solar, geothermal and renewable energy resources. Great. But the thing is, many of these jobs are in construction and engineering—fields overwhelmingly represented by men. Women make up only 9 percent of construction jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To address the issue, the Nevada Microenterprise Initiative hosted a Women in Green Jobs roundtable on Nov. 10. Consisting of men and women in the environmental, economic, nonprofit, political, service, science and technology sectors, the event was one of 31 being held in the United States with funding from the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau (DOLWB). Panelist Jenny Erwin, regional administrator for the DOLWB, is involved with an initiative to increase jobs and training opportunities for women in the green economy.

Tell me about your involvement with the roundtable.

What we’re doing at these roundtables is collecting information, looking at the challenges and opportunities, and what might be some next steps. We’re taking this information and providing it to a national contractor that’s working with the National Women’s Bureau in Washington, D.C. That information will be part of a national women’s guide to green jobs to be created over the next year. … The third part is a training aspect. There are nine pilot projects throughout the United States working to help expand training for women into the green economy.

You’ve participated in three of these events. Did you find anything distinctive to Nevada in the Reno event?

I think some of the key things we’re hearing is there’s a lot of dots out there, but there’s no central point of connecting the dots, of knowing about the funding and opportunities and having the conversation. …

I think there is tremendous potential in Nevada. The fact that a third of the federal geothermal stimulus funding came to the state, those opportunities are there. I was very happy to see the kind of people at the table [in Reno], from the state treasurer to a representative from Sen. Reid’s office. It seemed that there’s a tremendous infrastructure in place for Reno, and it’s just needing to figure out what the next steps are and have a coordinated approach. I think the state has some unique things in terms of the sunshine, some of the things with the geography, like the geothermal. The level of commitment I sensed at the table, I think that some people have been doing that for a while, and now to come up to this next level and bring people together to see the potential for the state and not just have it based upon the tourism and the casinos. This is what one of the people had said, needing to make sure students stay in school so they can get the education so that when these new jobs come up you don’t have to go out of the state to get the people with the skill sets to do them.

What needs to be done to encourage women into the green workforce?

I think women aren’t aware what it means. “What does a green job look like? How can I be a part of that?” I think there needs to be role models and awareness at all levels, starting when students are in elementary and high school. Just an ongoing education of what it means to be in a time when we’re really trying to do something to improve the environment. Let me give you an example, I heard this from one of the presenters in another roundtable. She has a 13-year-old son. They were talking about women being truck drivers. He said, “Women can’t be truck drivers,” and they said, “Why not?” “Well, because I’ve never seen one.” When we don’t see women in the variety of career options out there it’s hard to see ourselves in those careers. I would say part of the reason—and this is conjecture—we know that there are more women engineers, that that number has grown, and more women lawyers, judges , physicians. As more women went into that, it wasn’t such a pioneering effort. When you see people succeeding and feeling positive about the contributions they can make, then I might consider doing that myself and discover, oh yes, I do have that interest.

Going back to something unique about the Reno event is they talked about having a sense of innovation and political will. I really sense that there is a huge desire not to let Tuesday’s event be just an event. I know that [organizer] Tammi [Wright] talked about putting together a resource for the state. Those are the kinds of things to answer the question. You need to have a tool, whether online or through the library to let them know the opportunities are out there. That’s one of the biggest underlying things from the events is people not knowing where to go to get the information: What are the jobs? What skills do I need? Where do I get the training? How do I get into it?

Is there anything you’d like to add?

One of the things that came from the [recently released] Shriver Report is that for the first time in our nation’s history, women are half of all workers. Here’s something extremely significant: Mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families. So while women are half of the workplace, they’re not half of the jobs. There’s still this sex segregation in what we call pink-collared fields, and there’s a huge wage gap. If women are the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in two-thirds of American families, it’s important for them to be in jobs that have a career ladder, that have benefits so their families can thrive.