Climate change and its impact on the American workforce is a national effort, but regional initiatives are critical to achieving results. To support regions in their on-the-ground efforts to strengthen regional economies and address the escalating climate crisis, Jobs for the Future (JFT) launched the Quality Green Jobs Regional Challenge to invest nearly $5 million directly in communities to develop and implement regional quality green job strategies. The Challenge comprises three phases: learning, planning, and implementation.
The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has been selected to join as a Quality Green Jobs Regional Challenge Member alongside a diverse group of 20 regions across the United States to train and prepare individuals for climate-resilient jobs. UT Department of Sociology Professors Jon Shefner and Stephanie Bohon partnered with the UT Center for Transportation Research and received a $10,000 participation grant to form a learning community to deepen their understanding of regional needs, risks, and opportunities at the intersection of climate change and workforce development.
Challenge Members were selected from a pool of 101 applicants based on their proposals, which detailed their ideas for implementing regional green job initiatives. The funded UT project is a partnership with 17 local industries and 43 non-industry partners to drive economic development with green jobs, focusing on quality green jobs that require vocational training as opposed to a four-year degree.
“We are receiving funding to develop our own regional green job initiative to train ‘hard to place’ workers who are left out of job training due to lack of access to the Internet or inability to find child or elderly care or reliable transportation,” said Bohon, whose 30-year body of work focuses on immigrant and Latinx discrimination in the labor market.
Shefner, who heads the UT Community-University Research Collaboration Initiative (CURCI), has worked on the UT Green Economy Project for nearly a decade. Working with a team of sociologists, they brought together local players in industry, education, community, and labor working in the green economy space in Knoxville, which the Brookings Institution identified in 2011 as the second-fastest growing green economy in the nation.
“Our previous research shows green jobs are at UT, Oak Ridge National Lab, and the Tennessee Valley Authority,” Shefner said. “Our focus is on increasing green-collar jobs among the less educated. With decreases in the cost of green technology, the time is ripe to create good jobs requiring only vocational training.”
The participation grant the team received will fund two graduate students to conduct the initial groundwork for the project. If funded in Phase 2, the team will use the planning grant to work collaboratively with community partners to learn how to build a good green economy.
“If we receive the Implementation Grant in Phase 3, we’ll get matching funds from the state and partners to use the knowledge gained from previous grants to seek workers, overcome barriers to good jobs, and train and place that workforce,” Shefner said.
The Quality Green Jobs Regional Challenge celebrates the unique role of regions and regional leaders in fostering solutions at the intersection of climate and workforce development. The UT Grand Challenges initiative aims to create a future where every Tennessean can thrive, which includes strengthening rural communities. Over the next four years, JFF will invest nearly $5 million in flexible funding for regional strategies designed to address local climate challenges; climate policy; and social, economic, and cultural factors—essential steps in facilitating a clean energy transition that drives equitable economic advancement for all.