Prepare a climate-ready workforce before the next storm hits

Last month marked a grim anniversary: ​​10 years since Hurricane Sandy hammered New York City, killing 44 people, displacing thousands and exacting a $19 billion toll.

Sandy flooded subways, knocked out power and plunged 51 square miles of the city under water. This devastating storm underscored the lack of climate preparedness in New York City’s infrastructure systems, but it’s just one of many major climate shocks that have hit the country over the past decade: Hurricane Harvey in Houston to deadly forest fires throughout the West until, more recently, Hurricane Ian in the Southeast, which could be the second costliest storm in the country’s history, behind Hurricane Katrina.

The increased intensity and frequency of these events require more investment in infrastructure and climate resilience– which includes responding to the myriad of chronic challenges facing different parts of the country. But investing in infrastructure and resilience is not just about building more, it also means preparing a climate-ready workforce to take on these myriad responsibilities. It remains a work in progress, requiring leaders across the country to better define green jobs, articulate their hiring needs and training gaps, and take other concrete steps.

Developing clearer definitions of these jobs is a necessary first step. National efforts, including those led by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, have struggled to define coherent industries, professions, and other activities in the climate resilience space. In many cases, this has resulted in an overemphasis on a narrow range of fast-growing jobs, such as solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians. But the the transition to a cleaner economy requires a wide range of positions in the energy sector, and even these jobs do not reflect the full breadth of roles responsible for managing our current climate resilience needs.

Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners need to reframe these needs as part of a broader set of climate-responsive career pathways. They must consider the wide range of projects and tasks performed in the built environment: install rain gardensincorporating new flood protection technologiesWhere maintain roads and other assets new, climate-friendly means. Climate-ready careers – similar to the many infrastructure jobs that Brookings research has explored in the past and will cover in more depth in the coming months – involve short-term positions in construction and design, but also long-term positions in operations and maintenance, engineers and technicians to service roles in finance and computing. In other words, you don’t need to wear a helmet to pursue a career in climate resilience.

Since climate resilience touches so many different projects and regions across the country, leaders also need to assess their hiring needs more directly in terms of the types of skills and training required for the job. For example, at reduce the risk of storm surge, a climate resilience worker could play a role in building a seaside promenade create a buffer zone between the sea and the resident population. Or they could be in a maintenance position, regularly evaluating the effectiveness of green infrastructure projects like biowees in areas vulnerable to chronic flooding. In places like California, a climate resilience worker might be installation of new power lines with covered conductor or prune trees to reduce the risk of forest fires. And in cities like Phoenix that are vulnerable to extreme heata climate resilience role could involve identifying roads to be re-paved with cooling surfaces (or they could do the actual re-paving).

Preparing potential workers and retraining current workers for these roles require more opportunities to earn and learn, including apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeships and internships. Additional service and conservation programs can also make a difference by exposing more workers – especially young people, women, and people of color traditionally underrepresented in the skilled trades – to careers in this space. And more federal funding for infrastructure and climate investments holds tremendous promise also by supporting these training options. But ultimately, local leaders must forge concrete plans, programs and partnerships to expand these talent pools.

Fortunately, one post-Sandy New York City is already putting such an approach into practice:

  • Action plans: New York City leaders are launching more climate projects and making targeted investments that push more workers into these careers. First aided by federal disaster relief after Sandy, these leaders allocated tens of billions of dollars for physical flood barriers and waterproofing to deal with future storm threats. Notable efforts include the $10 billion Lower Manhattan Coastal Resilience Project and the $1.5 billion Eastern Coastal Resilience Project, which already have climate resilience workers. facility doors and other improvements and monitoring ecosystem repercussions. Mayor Eric Adams also recently launched a new plan to create the next pipeline of resilience projects.
  • Actionable partnerships: In the years since the Sandy strike, a range of organizations, labor groups, educational institutions and other entities have also collaborated more broadly around these careers. For instance, New York Climate Jobs represents a coalition of unions and more than 2 million workers helping the state transition to a clean energy economy, and works with state officials to embed strict labor standards in these positions. In terms of training, the green city strength offers social housing residents aged 18-24 the opportunity to engage in hands-on sustainability projects that serve their communities. These are tied to six- or 10-month national service terms through AmeriCorps. The private sector also got involved. BlocPower Civil Climate Body trains people in communities at high risk of gun violence to install clean energy and broadband technologies – a program that has been extended last month. Meanwhile, in September, the City University of New York and the New York City Economic Development Corporation announced $3.98 million in funding for the city for green workforce programs in public colleges.

These are just a sample of the efforts emerging in New York, demonstrating how much momentum has been gained since Sandy struck a decade ago. And they are just beginning to address all the other climate-ready workforce development efforts that are emerging across the country, from a green infrastructure training program in Washington, DC to efforts around “blue-green” jobs in New Orleans.

Leaders must continue to expose more workers to these careers and help them flexibly get the training and experience they need to develop their career. It will take more dedicated funding, more engaged state and local leadership, and greater coordination among employers, educators, and others to grow the talent pool over time. This can help places like New York not only recover from past storms, but expand economic opportunity and long-term climate resilience.

Michael A. Bynum