Tapping a New Labor Force for the Green Economy

Isabel McDevitt

In America, the unemployment rate tripled in May 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; nearly 600,000 people are experiencing homelessness every night; black men today have a one in twenty chance of going to prison. We have a perfect storm of challenges -- but we also have opportunity.

As the new administration takes shape with its vision for unity to solve our most pressing problems, I have an answer: a model called "Work Works." This holistic model bridges the gap from street homelessness and incarceration to mainstream jobs and independent housing for disenfranchised Americans through paid work in social enterprise, transitional housing, and support services for one year. Work Works solves pressing problems and squarely supports the Biden Administration’s priorities on housing, racial equity, criminal justice reform, and inclusive employment.

"The Work Works model can also be part of the solution to the Climate Crisis, providing a source of labor and untapped talent for the Green economy."

Work Works is a proven approach that empowers individuals through work and breaks insidious cycles of homelessness, joblessness and criminal recidivism.

Thirty years ago, The Doe Fund (a New York-based non-profit) pioneered the Work Works model with its Ready, Willing & Able program. Since then over 28,000 men, overwhelmingly Black and Latino, have benefited and achieved mainstream jobs and independent housing. Work Works has the potential to move hundreds of thousands of people off of the streets each year and to save hundreds of millions of dollars through a cost-effective model that leverages earned revenue and better deploys taxpayer funds by investing in opportunity. The Work Works model can also be part of the solution to the Climate Crisis, providing a source of labor and untapped talent for the Green economy.

Bridge House "Ready To Work" program (June 4th 2020).

As we tackle the massive challenges facing our nation, we need unity in setting priorities and policies to further our collective goals. On the ground, we need unified action plans that achieve myriad results -- solutions that unite us are ones that resolve multiple problems at once and benefit various stakeholders. Our proposed effort to link Work Works to Green jobs does just that. This model offers a pipeline to an otherwise overlooked labor force for the Green economy and allows for the most marginalized in our country -- those experiencing homelessness and returning from incarceration -- the opportunity to be part of this emerging sector.

"Our proposed effort to link Work Works to Green jobs does just that. This model offers a pipeline to an otherwise overlooked…"

As the Biden Administration sets goals for investing in greening our infrastructure and clean energy sectors, unions and mainstream trade organizations should take the lead. As Americans, we must expand and invest in workforce development efforts to not only retrain workers from other industries, but also reach the most marginalized in our communities. Work Works can be that conduit to the disenfranchised. Its holistic model prepares people to be ready for technical training and employment by stabilizing them in housing with supportive services -- giving them basic tools to be successful.

Work Works represents an opportunity to solve multiple problems in one:

  • Addresses street homelessness by targeting those with the capacity and desire to get back to work and who are ineligible for traditional forms of subsidized housing
  • Participates in criminal justice reform and provides reentry services to reduce recidivism through access to employment and housing
  • Advances racial equity through a solution designed to target the disproportionate number of people of color experiencing homelessness and incarceration
  • Provides a source of labor for emerging industries and reach marginalized populations for an inclusive recovery

The nationwide expansion of the Work Works model has transformative implications for the people it serves as well as providing the country with a massive return on investment. Further, Work Works can be tailored to communities of all sizes and adapted to suit the needs of the Green economy across varied regions.

The Doe Fund's Work Works model has already inspired many other communities to seek and adopt a work-based solution. In both Boulder and Aurora, Colorado, I founded the Ready to Work program as a testament that the model is scalable and universally implementable. Ready to Work has added a much-needed work-based approach to addressing homelessness in Metro Denver. Three out of four program participants graduate with jobs and housing. It is proof that Work Works can and should be part of every community.

In 2021, as we rebuild from the COVID-19 pandemic and seize efforts to "build back better" with bold and inclusive solutions, Work Works is a fundamental part of the equation.