U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant helps Chattanooga workers go green on job

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant helps Chattanooga workers go green on job

October 10th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

The average forklift operator, ditch digger or truck driver may not consider their position a "green job."

But thanks to a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 75 Chattanooga laborers now are certified as sustainable workers in the environmental field.

"This is training to do normal jobs in a green way," said Donna Van Natten, coordinator at The Enterprise Center, which supervised the process.

Program graduate Kevin Spears works at the Landsberg packaging company as a safety coordinator.

The company distributes paper boxes, as well as petroleum-based products such as plastic bags and styrofoam cushioning. Though the environmental impact of those products is decidedly negative, Spears noted that the company has installed light-dimmers in the warehouse that save energy when no one's working.

"I wouldn't consider what I do a green job, absolutely not," he said. "But there are aspects of it where company's making responsible choices."

Wednesday's graduating class of 16 is the fourth and final "sustainable workforce" trained in Chattanooga under a two-year, $4 million federal program.

And though forklift certification and CPR training may appear far removed from the popular understanding of sustainability, the program does push groups of Chattanooga's unemployed residents in a green direction, officials said.

"It enables them to walk onto manufacturing and construction sites better-prepared in terms of safety, equipment, job duties, and entry-level positions," Van Natten said. "It's hard, because how do you define a green job?"

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines green jobs as "jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources," or alternately defines them as "jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources."

But the EPA and the Enterprise Center take a broader view of sustainability.

According to its own description of the program, the EPA's goal is to train "low-income and minority, unemployed and under-employed people living in areas affected by solid and hazardous waste," then help them secure "full-time, sustainable employment in the environmental field."

Even driving an 18-wheeler can be a green job, if the truck is hauling hazardous materials, said Wayne Cropp, head of The Enterprise Center.

"The [commercial driver's license] program actually enables a number of applicants to go on and work for companies that are hauling environmental goods, and some of that may be hazardous waste," Cropp said. "They can identify environmental risk, and this gives them an opportunity for premium pay and green jobs."

Following the conclusion of the program at the Urban League's M.L. King Boulevard headquarters on Wednesday, the Enterprise Center will continue to monitor graduates for a year, helping them to secure sustainable employment. For the previous three graduating classes, the job placement rate has hovered at 65 percent, Van Natten said.

"We have some that do forklift in manufacturing, and many of our students have gone on to earn their CDL driver's license and are employed on the road," she said.

Though few of the recent class have yet secured employment, several said they were sending out resumes.

Jeffrey Ringer, a resident of Alton Park, is a former foundry worker who studied safety hazards and hazardous materials for two weeks. While the three weeks of training was a whirlwind, he feels like he's ready for a full-time green job.

"I got the CPR certification, hazards on construction sites," he said. "I'm also trying to get my CDL license."

He's working weekends as a security guard, but he's put in applications at Alstom, the city of Chattanooga, and CARTA, he said. So far, he hasn't heard anything.

Eric Lewis, an unemployed 28-year-old, said the federal funds helped him gather a laundry list of hazardous material and safety certifications, and also overcome one of his phobias.

Pointing to one of a handful of certificates tucked into a folder, his finger fell on the "8 hour aerial platform and articulating boom operator class" certification.

"That's the day I stopped being afraid of heights," he said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.