Paul Johnson was in his early 20s when he was slapped with a DUI charge and ushered into the Philadelphia Youth Violence Reduction Partnership. The arrest made him a statistic — one of the 100,000 disconnected youth in Philadelphia, the majority of whom are black or Latino. Although he’d held various jobs up to that point, nothing stuck as a career; he had no post-secondary education to fall back on.
Entering YVRP was a wakeup call. Johnson spent time thumbing through various pamphlets on workforce development programs and apprenticeships. About his fourth visit to the employment office, someone pointed out a brochure for a brand-new AmeriCorps opportunity.
“They mentioned a program in which I might be able to attain a city job,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know the name at the time, but I said ‘sign me up.’” Aside from the solid pay scale and government benefits, Johnson believed this could be his second chance. “You can start from the bottom in a city job and end up as commissioner.”
The program was PowerCorps PHL, which began in 2013 as a way to address two disparate issues in the city: disconnected youth and how to maintain the expansive green agenda of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Each year, roughly 130 18- to 26-year-olds collectively work on anything from cleaning up public watersheds to pruning vegetation around stormwater infrastructure. The experience is designed to activate a civic streak in participants and foster employable skills.
“I never knew what I wanted to do with my life but I knew that I wanted to be the creator of something, especially something that people can use that helps out everybody,” Johnson says. He was in the original cohort of PowerCorps PHL and used a $2,800 education award from AmeriCorps to enroll at the Community College of Philadelphia. Now, he’s on his way to an environmental engineering degree. Currently, he works as a part-time green infrastructure landscape maintenance technician for a big stormwater management city contractor. In his free time, he’s building a green infrastructure project in his back yard: an environmentally friendly doghouse with lights on it that’s powered by rainwater. “I really fell in love with this stuff,” he says.
With the City of Philadelphia committing more than $1 billion over the course of a 25-year-plan called Green City, Clean Waters to convert 4,000 acres of impervious area into green stormwater infrastructure, the industry is ready to boom. GSI Partners, a division of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, conducted a survey of 40 of its members last year, and estimated there was a 14 percent increase in revenue between 2013 and 2014, and there was a 20 percent increase in temporary or seasonal jobs among those members. And that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the SBN projections at the start of Green City, Clean Waters, which anticipated 8,600 jobs being created in the area over the project’s lifespan.
As with any emerging industry, of course, standards need to be established. Right now, there are longtime landscapers trying to adjust to the nuances of vegetated green stormwater infrastructure maintenance, without adequate professional development bringing them up to speed.
“We continue to see operations and maintenance as key to the long-term success of the plan, but there’s a knowledge gap,” admits Anna Shipp, project manager of GSI Partners. And in order to keep the jobs local, that gap must be filled, which is why GSI Partners spent a year and a half developing the region’s first green infrastructure operations and maintenance course taught by industry professionals. The three-day, $350 course sold out to 40 participants in its first run this summer. (The GSI Partners initiative is made possible in part with funds from the Surdna Foundation, a sponsor of the Equity Factor.)
“We’re hoping that the operations and maintenance course that we put together becomes the credentialing program for the industry,” Shipp says. Granted, for the foreseeable future, the course is not designed for newcomers to landscaping, but rather, existing professionals who want to transition to the green approach. “We’re not taking people cold who have no landscape background and then promising that they’ll have a clear understanding of landscape management and green infrastructure maintenance.”
Right now, that role is left to just a few programs like PowerCorps PHL and the Water Department’s apprenticeship program. But the enthusiasm of individuals like Paul — and 10 other alumni of the same program who’re working in the field currently — have definitely rubbed off on higher-ups in PWD, like Water Department Deputy Commissioner Chris Crockett. “Paul was the first person to wake people up to the potential of what an untapped resource we had in our own front yard, but without the right conveyor belts to bring these people in,” he says. “There should be no barrier as to why Paul can’t get to my job.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow. He has contributed writing and research for The Atlantic and Philadelphia magazine, among other publications. He’s appeared on NPR’s “On The Media” and “All Things Considered.” He lives in Philadelphia.