by Lizzy Stephan, Colorado College , Denver, CO
Colorado’s former Governor Bill Ritter made the promotion of renewable energy one of his signature issues—an emphasis that was well timed, because under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), the state received several grants to promote renewable energy and increase the number of green jobs in the state. Investing in renewable energy and our workforce is something I have advocated for, but the nuts and bolts involved in making those priorities a reality is a part of the equation that I do not know very much about.
So, I sat down last month with Emily Templin Lesh to learn about what it takes to promote green jobs on a statewide basis. She’s the Project Manager/Green Jobs Coordinator for the Colorado Workforce Development Council, and has also worked in the Governor’s Energy Office. The grants that Colorado received under ARRA require extensive coordination amongst public, private, and nonprofit partners—which is where Emily’s role as the Green Jobs Coordinator is crucial.
In her tenure in government, Lesh has worked under two different administrations—that of former Governor Bill Ritter and that of our current Governor, John Hickenlooper—so she’s got an interesting perspective on the Colorado clean energy scene. The change in administration is notable, because Governor Hickenlooper has not been as strong an advocate for renewable energy or green jobs as his predecessor—in fact, he’s appeared in some pro-fracking radio ads since taking office.
We chatted about her career path and the challenges involved in her work. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Lizzy: Could you tell me a bit about your job itself—your responsibilities, and maybe what a typical day is like?
Emily: Every day is very different. I do a lot of work coordinating between green job grants—and that was a lot of what I did underneath the Ritter administration at the Governor’s Energy Office (GEO)—and between programs. And then I also do project management for the green jobs grants that the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment distributed. I coordinate clean tech employment opportunities with the education and workforce systems—so, a lot of working with renewable energy and energy efficiency employers to understand what their needs are….and then working with education and the workforce system to ensure that training programs are aligned to train people for the jobs that are available.
Lizzy: How did you get started in this field?
Emily: I went into college very interested in the environmental field, and I did some summer internships with nonprofit organizations during college—like the Oregon Environmental Council in Portland. I also did a lot of work with the environmental groups on campus. I got into Green Corps and then worked in the nonprofit advocacy field for about five years, went to graduate school for a Masters in Public Administration focused on climate and energy policy. All of that led to this work. Towards the end of the Bush Administration, and with Obama coming in, there were a lot of exciting things happening in Colorado related to clean energy. So then, I was really interested in being a part of government to see things from that perspective and to get an understanding of what happens inside the system.
Lizzy: What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Emily: I most enjoy working with people and connecting them with resources and to one another. And I do feel like I’m able to make an impact in this job, shaping policy and the way that policies are implemented.
Lizzy: What are some of the common misconceptions about green jobs that you have encountered?
Emily: People in Colorado perceive green jobs as solar installation or energy efficiency jobs, and that those jobs do not exist and/or the market is oversaturated.
The solar and energy efficiency jobs are what we think of when we think ‘green jobs’, but then there are so many other types of green jobs! Like in conservation, or community-based organizations, research and development, manufacturing, and engineering. So, there are really a lot of traditional occupations with new technology that are green jobs, as a result of the innovation in the energy sector. People often forget about the jobs in manufacturing firms, and about the people that are actually producing our renewable energy.
The energy efficiency and solar installation markets have reached a critical point after a lot of growth, and they’ve sort of plateaued—so there aren’t as many new job opportunities in those areas for people to enter right now. But, there are opportunities in many other areas.
So I think that there are a lot more “green jobs” out there that people do not initially think of—and that we do not talk about politically.
Lizzy: What is the biggest challenge that you face in your work?
Emily: One big one would be the challenge of defining green jobs generally, and the image that that it creates—how people interpret or think about green jobs.
Politically, there are a lot of challenges in this field, and it was a highly political issue really driven by the Obama administration and the Ritter administration. The biggest challenge has been that as political powers have changed in Colorado, throughout the state support has waned for green jobs. So, for me it’s been a really interesting perspective to see how much the political leaders have driven the emphasis. I think green energy, particularly the clean tech industry, is thriving in Colorado—it’s just not so much in the spotlight as it was. But, there are probably pros and cons to it being in the political spotlight.
A lot of the attention that green jobs got has left, and I think with that came the perception that green jobs are “over”—but its definitely more long-term than that, and there are markets still and there are definitely still jobs in the field.
Lizzy: Any advice you have for young people who want to work on these issues?
Emily: Get involved and stay engaged. And to take it a step further—getting hands-on experience with internships, with volunteer opportunities, and then also staying really abreast of current events.