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Taking action since Hurricane Sandy: Preparing a climate-ready workforce before the next storm hits

By J.R. Reed, Joseph Kane

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, cut off power, and plunged 51 square miles of the city underwater. This devastating storm underscored the lack of climate preparedness across 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: from Hurricane Harvey in Houston to the deadly wildfires throughout the West to, most recently, Hurricane Ian in the Southeast, which could be the second-costliest storm in the nation’s history, behind Hurricane Katrina. 

The increased intensity and frequency of these events demand greater infrastructure investment and climate resilience—which includes responding to the slew of chronic challenges facing different parts of the country. But investing in infrastructure and resilience isn’t just about building more—it also means preparing a climate-ready workforce to take on these myriad responsibilities. This 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 actionable 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 consistent industries, occupations, and other activities in the climate resilience space. In many cases, this has resulted in an overemphasis of a narrow range of fast-growing jobs, such as solar panel installers and wind turbine technicians. But the transition to a cleaner economy demands a wide range of positions in the energy sector, and even these jobs do not capture the full extent of roles responsible for handling our current climate resilience needs. 

Researchers, policymakers, and practitioners need to reframe these needs as part of a broader set of climate-ready career pathways. They should consider the wide range of projects and tasks carried out across the built environment: installing rain gardens, incorporating new flood-proofing technologies, or maintaining roads and other assets in new, climate-friendly ways. 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 operation and maintenance, from engineers and technicians to service roles in finance and IT. In other words, you don’t have to wear a hard hat to pursue a career in climate resilience. 

Since climate resilience touches so many different projects and regions across the country, leaders also must assess their hiring needs more directly in terms of the types of skills and training required for this work. For example, to reduce storm surge risk, a climate resilience worker could be in a construction role building a shorefront parkway to create a buffer between the sea and resident population. Or they could be in a maintenance position, regularly assessing the efficacy of green infrastructure projects like bioswales in areas vulnerable to chronic flooding. In places like California, a climate resilience worker could be installing new power lines with covered conductor or trimming trees to reduce risk of wildfires. And, in cities like Phoenix that are vulnerable to extreme heat, a climate resilience role could involve identifying roads to re-pave with cooling surfaces (or they could be doing the actual re-paving).  

Preparing prospective workers and retraining current workers for these roles demand more earn-and-learn opportunities, including apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeships, and internships. Additional service and conservation programs can also make a difference by exposing more workers—particularly younger individuals, 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 in providing support for these training options too. But ultimately, local leaders need to forge actionable plans, programs, and partnerships to expand these talent pipelines. 

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

  • Actionable plans: New York City leaders are launching more climate projects and making targeted investments that are immersing more workers in these careers. First aided by federal disaster relief after Sandy, these leaders have allocated tens of billions of dollars to physical flood barriers and waterproofing to confront future storm threats. The most notable efforts include the $10 billion Lower Manhattan Coastal Resiliency Project and the $1.5 billion East Side Coastal Resiliency Project, which already have climate resilience workers installing gates and other upgrades and monitoring ecosystem impacts. Mayor Eric Adams also recently launched a new plan to create the next pipeline of resilience projects. 
  • Actionable partnerships: In the years since Sandy struck, an array of organizations, labor groups, educational institutions, and other entities have also collaborated more extensively around these careers. For instance, Climate Jobs New York represents a coalition of unions and more than 2 million workers helping the state shift toward a clean energy economy, and works with state officials to integrate strong labor standards into these positions. In terms of training, the Green City Force offers 18- to 24-year-old residents in public housing chances 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 has gotten involved too. BlocPower’s Civilian Climate Corps trains individuals in communities at high risk of gun violence to install clean energy and broadband technologies—a program that was expanded last month. Meanwhile, in September, the City University of New York and the New York City Economic Development Corporation announced $3.98 million in city funding for green workforce programs at public colleges. 

These are only a sampling of the efforts emerging in New York City, demonstrating how much momentum has been gained since Sandy hit a decade ago. And they only begin to touch on all the other climate-ready workforce development efforts emerging across the country, from a green infrastructure training program in Washington, D.C. to efforts around “blue-green” jobs in New Orleans.  

Leaders need to continue exposing more workers to these careers and help them flexibly get the training and experience they need to grow their careers. That will require more dedicated funding, more committed state and local leadership, and more coordination among employers, educators, and others to grow the talent pool over time. Doing so can help places like New York City not simply recover from past storms, but expand economic opportunity and climate resilience for the long haul. 

      

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