While Vice President Biden launches an initiative in Philadelphia tomorrow focusing on using green jobs to raise living standards for middle-class Americans, Suechada Poynter, 39, will be crawling around the basement of a Philadelphia rowhouse.
Checking for air leaks and improperly functioning furnaces in her job as a home energy auditor, Poynter will not be available to talk to Biden, but she has a message for him:
"Green jobs have opened a lot of doors for a lot of lower-class people to get into this field," said Poynter, a Thai immigrant and mother of seven who lives in Philadelphia's Logan section and earns $11 an hour for her work.
"I'd tell him to open more doors to get more people into this field," she said. Passionate about the environment, she is studying architecture in college. "This is just the beginning of a bigger door," she said.
Holding its first hearing tomorrow in the Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania, the middle-class task force will hear presentations on the potential of green jobs to help spur economic recovery and ways to train workers for those jobs.
Green jobs, broadly defined as related to improving the environment, pay up to 20 percent more than other jobs, according to a draft copy of a report to be released at tomorrow's invitation-only event.
The $787 billion stimulus bill signed by President Obama on Feb. 17 provides $22.5 billion for green investments, including $5 billion to help people weatherize their homes and $500 million for a federal green-job-training program.
To area leaders in the green movement, the Biden visit is both an endorsement and an opportunity to showcase the region as a worthy recipient of green stimulus money.
Piggybacking on the Biden event, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation will announce tomorrow more than $1.3 million in grants to the City of Philadelphia, Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and Energy Coordinating Agency.
The Energy Coordinating Agency, the Philadelphia nonprofit group that employs Poynter, will get the biggest portion, about $900,000, to turn the second floor of a former textile factory in Kensington into a school to teach skills for green jobs.
The agency now provides training and is one of two groups handling government-funded weatherization projects in Philadelphia.
"We can show how we can take this place that was a city of smokestacks and show it as a city fueled by jobs in the green economy," said Matt Bergheiser, a program officer for the Knight Foundation. "If the Biden visit can help tell that story, I think that's great news for Philadelphia."
Fueling the green economy, at least so far, is state and federal money, along with demand from utilities.
"Obviously, the stimulus bill is to stimulate the economy, and a big piece of that is the job creation," said Tom Tuffey, director of the PennFuture Center for Energy, Enterprise, and the Environment in Philadelphia, a group that helps raise capital for businesses investing in energy.
"But jobs don't get created out of nothing. Companies create jobs," he said. But first, "you have to create a market for goods and services."
Tuffey said that in Pennsylvania, the state is creating that market through legislation requiring utilities to use alternative sources for energy and to reduce demand.
For example, tax credits now enable homeowners to afford solar power, he said, and utilities will pay for people to reduce energy consumption by weatherizing their homes.
"It is very labor-intensive," said Mark Alan Hughes, Mayor Nutter's director of sustainability. "It requires caulk guns and hammers. This work does not lend itself to technology and outsourcing."
Liz Robinson, Poynter's boss at the Energy Coordinating Agency, said she expected to increase her weatherization staff to 120 or 180 from 60.
In Bucks County, AE Polysilicon Inc. expects to employ 100 by the end of the year, when it plans to begin production of a key element used in solar cells, said Timothy McElvaine, business development specialist.
With job creation at stake, Philadelphia's labor leaders are taking an active part in green-jobs strategy sessions.
"I'm not even preaching that they have to be union jobs here," said Patrick Eiding, who heads the Philadelphia Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO. "We'll worry about that later. My real concern is that we don't have any places for people to work."
United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard expects to attend tomorrow's session with Biden. Years ago, Gerard began the Blue Green Alliance with the Sierra Club to tout environmentally sound jobs. Now, union steelworkers employed by Gamesa Inc. make wind-turbine parts at the former U.S. Steel plant in Fairless Hills.
Heavy Hitters Who Will Be on Hand
Among those to attend tomorrow's session with Vice President Biden: