Employment and Jobs

In the New Green Economy, Philanthropy Must Take a Smarter Approach to Creating Good Jobs

July 26, 2023  • Maureen Conway & Amy Brown

This piece originally appeared in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

For years, philanthropy has supported efforts to help low-income people get and keep good jobs that offer family-sustaining wages and benefits, a safe and respectful work environment, and opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, the results have not always lived up to expectations.

Grant makers have instead been forced to face an uncomfortable truth: Pouring funds into programs that help people improve their skills to land good jobs doesn’t work when the economic ladder they are trying to climb is broken. While educational attainment increased significantly during the past four decadeseconomic inequality also grew as millions of adults remained stuck in low-wage and unstable jobs. It turned out that preparing people for good jobs didn’t make good jobs appear.

Now philanthropy has an opportunity to get it right as the effects of climate change push the economy toward an epochal shift akin to the switch from a production to a service economy. Two massive pieces of federal legislation — the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act — are expected to create an estimated 25 million jobs over the next 10 years. This wave of job creation can set new standards for what quality jobs can look like in the green economy.

At the federal level, the Departments of Energy and Transportation have incorporated good-jobs principles into infrastructure investments. These are positive steps, but the real work will happen at the local level, where philanthropy is well positioned to ensure that the new green economy translates into quality employment for those who need it most.

Philanthropy can support efforts that encourage government, labor unions, businesses, environmental advocates, and other key players to focus on job-quality goals — and it can take the lead in setting standards that hold government and business accountable for meeting those goals. Grant makers can also play a powerful role by insisting residents have a say in the types of jobs created and advancing their vision for what the green economy will look like.

Those jobs will potentially span nearly every field and industry. Solar-panel installation, wind-turbine operation, and electric-vehicle manufacturing may be the first to come to mind. But climate change will also affect jobs in fields as varied as transportation and agriculture, housing and childcare, and health care and disaster recovery. The climate economy will create opportunities for businesses of all sizes and for both workers and entrepreneurs. Philanthropy needs to be intentional in shaping what those opportunities look like.

A clear agreement on what constitutes a good job — and what doesn’t — is a good place to start. The Aspen Institute’s Economic Opportunities Program, where we both work, and the Families and Workers Fund, in consultation with other groups, developed a shared Statement on Good Jobs that identifies three core pillars of job quality: economic stability, economic mobility, and what we call “equity, respect, and voice,” which focuses on elevating the diverse voices of employees in efforts to improve workplaces.

Good jobs provide workers with wages and benefits that allow them to meet their basic needs now and in the future. Good jobs offer opportunities to learn, move into new positions, save, and build wealth. Good jobs exist in organizations that respect workers’ contributions and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Workers in good jobs have the power to raise concerns about working conditions and offer ideas for improvements. In addition, good jobs support not only workers, but also families and communities. They provide stability through times of crisis, build wealth across generations, and sustain local economies over time.

Good green jobs are critical to realizing philanthropy’s commitment to equity. Workers of color, women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and others who are most likely to hold low-quality jobs are the same people who will gain the most from a green economy with broadly shared benefits.

But this will require moving beyond past employment approaches that too often reinforced inequities. Programs that focus on individual advancement, for example, do not decrease the proportion of low-quality jobs since as one person moves up, someone else steps into the same bad job. This process leaves labor-market inequities largely unchanged.

Making Bad Jobs Better

Philanthropy can help make bad jobs better by funding efforts that focus on “raising the floor” — making specific improvements in areas such as compensation, scheduling, safety, and other important job-quality measures. Philanthropic investments, for example, allowed Cooperative Home Care Associates to test a program that guarantees hours for home-health aides, while also advocating for improved regulation of workers’ wages and working conditions.

In the environmental field, donors can support groups such as Resilience Force, which works predominantly with immigrants and people of color to improve jobs in the often-dangerous and low-paying field of natural-disaster cleanup. The organization starts by consulting workers about the challenges they face and puts them at the center of efforts to create change. At the same time, the group builds relationships with the disaster-recovery industry to improve practices and standards; with policy makers to increase adherence to regulations; and with educators to develop opportunities to teach workers new skills.

Drivers of Solutions

These approaches engage workers not only as drivers of change for better quality jobs, but also as drivers of solutions to climate change. Ensuring that diverse communities see themselves as key players in the green economy will reduce resistance and accelerate the adoption of climate-mitigation efforts.

Creating a green economy that works for all will require both intentionality and accountability. New metrics are needed to track not only progress toward equitable access to good jobs, but the redesign and improvement of jobs that don’t currently meet job-quality standards.

Philanthropy can promote accountability by establishing standards and metrics, and by monitoring results. This would entail clarifying expectations for what a good job is and then tracking both the quality of jobs created and the degree to which existing jobs are improved. Grant makers can also build knowledge of what works and share that knowledge within and across communities. For example, philanthropy can support research to document and promote what works, and it can use its power to bring people together to create opportunities for community-based efforts to share lessons and approaches.

At a time when millions of working adults are floundering in low-wage, low-quality jobs, the unprecedented federal climate investments offer a special opportunity to make good jobs a priority and advance climate solutions. Let’s do it right this time.