The value of green apprenticeships

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I met Gregory Salt-Smith and Chris Williamson in May when I visited the dozen or so young men selected to participate in the Central Ontario Building Trades Council's Hammer Heads program, which mentors, trains and places priority youth into trade apprenticeships.

Hammer Heads graduates, Chris and Gregory, had been invited to speak about their experience to the incoming class. They spoke about the harder realities of being a pre-apprentice first. "You have to say yes to whatever the foreman wants, and as the newest person on the site you're always given the hardest work," Gregory said. "If you told me I was going to get up at 5.30 a.m. every day I wouldn't have believed you," he continued. "You have to find some motivation to get up."

On the positive side, both Chris and Gregory emphasized the benefits of a regular paycheque (they both earn about $12.73 an hour plus health, pension and dental), the job security and their future plans. "Once I get my electrician's licence I want to be a foreman and run my own site," said Gregory.

"I'm the only one of my friends who has a stable job," said Chris, who is 18 and lives with his father in Toronto's Kennedy and Eglinton neighbourhood. "My friends all work casual jobs at movie theatres and restaurants." Chris is saving up money so he can sponsor his mother -- who lives in Jamaica -- to come to Canada.

The pair's stories give purpose to the Good Jobs for All Coalition's new campaign, launched on June 7. The Green Jobs for All at Hydro campaign wants our publicly owned utility, Toronto Hydro, to invest in economic development, equity and green energy, by promoting and installing solar panels on schools, universities, hospitals and other public buildings across the city, and creating job opportunities for youth, new immigrants, and people of colour.

Toronto Hydro's good reputation as an equitable employer has fallen in recent years.

"People are ready to get to work and install these solar panels," said electrician Amanda Ehrke, who spoke at the Green Jobs for All at Hydro's campaign launch. "When our local holds trainings on solar panel installation the classes are always full," she said. "I'm trained, and I'd love to start putting up these panels as well; we just need to get people and utilities like Toronto Hydro to start buying them so we can get to work."

Originally Amanda wanted to be a marine biologist, but she didn't want the student debt and no guarantee of a job, so she took her dad's advice and became an electrician instead. Today, she financially supports her stay-at-home husband and two young children.

Under the Green Energy and Green Economy Act 2009, renewable energy companies, utilities and homeowners can receive provincial subsidies - through the feed-in tariff program - provided they meet domestic content rules, which require 40 to 60% of the goods and services used originate from Ontario.

"The green energy boom is finally coming to Ontario, but the rewards must be reaped by all," says Carolyn Egan, from the Steelworker Toronto Area Council. "We lost nearly 60,000 manufacturing jobs in Toronto over the past decade. Toronto Hydro must work with us so we can together rebuild our manufacturing sector and revitalize our city."

The Good Jobs for All Coalition is also asking Toronto Hydro to make local procurement of green products a priority in all activities, use their buying power to attract green manufacturers to Toronto and/or assist existing manufacturers to retool; and work with local training organizations and Toronto's Social Development Office to ensure equitable access and inclusion of workers of colour and youth from marginalized communities in new job opportunities in the sector.

Environmental organizations, unions, and community groups involved in the Green Jobs for All at Hydro campaign, include: the Steelworker Toronto Area Council, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 1, the Jane Finch Green Jobs Coalition, the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians, the Chinese Canadian National Council -- Toronto, the Jane/Finch Green Jobs Coalition, the Society of Energy Professionals, and the Canadian Tamil Congress.

Supporters of the Green Jobs for All at Hydro campaign can formally endorse the initiative by clicking here.

Jessica Bell works for Toronto & York Region Labour Council.

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