When Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis spoke at Social Venture Network’s Fall Conference in Philadelphia last Friday, it was a homecoming of sorts. Prior to her 2009 appointment as the first Latina cabinet member, Solis was a four-term California congresswoman at the forefront of the green jobs movement. One of her crowning achievements in Congress: the 2007 Green Jobs Act, which provided funding for “green collar” job training for veterans, displaced workers, at risk youth, and individuals and families under 200% of the federal poverty line.
As Secretary of Labor, Solis remains focused on her vision for a green economy across all sectors. Last January she announced $150 million in “Pathways Out of Poverty” green jobs training grants. The awards support programs to help workers in disadvantaged communities gain access to jobs in industries such as energy efficiency and renewable energy as part of the Recovery Act.
“I was able to invest about $500 million that was given to the agency for the first time so that we could jumpstart the green jobs initiative and that was to help create jobs and get business and spur business and make those investments with partnerships at the community level so that we could begin to train people in their local clean energy sector. And it keeps growing,” Solis told Oceana‘s Dianne Saenz at the SVN conference.
For 24 years, SVN has been a resource for social entrepreneurs focused on sustainability, social justice, and corporate and social responsibility. Its mission: to build a just and sustainable world through business.
“My agenda, and albeit the Administration’s agenda, is in trying to help further the idea that [SVN] is pushing for. And those are better jobs, clean jobs, safe jobs, better communities, safer communities and first and foremost making sure we can live in sustainable communities that protect and care for all of us,” she said. Solis also pointed out that financial resources are available to strengthen green initiatives, and she encouraged the group of entrepreneurs at the conference to take advantage of these funding opportunities.
“President Obama and his whole initiative is to jumpstart our economy in a new way, in a new 21st century revolution,” Solis told Saenz. “So part of it was making the investment and making sure that we brought communities together and that green jobs can be created for everyone. Not just for that segment of the society that’s well off that has the tools, that has the instruments, that had the funding available, but to make it clear across the country, in rural America, in impoverished America, in areas where vulnerable communities live, where we have seen the unemployment rate upwards of 12-15%.”
Solis’ and Saenz’s conversation ran the gamut, from the core mission of the Department of Labor, to the role of OSHA and the importance of protecting American workers, to global business trends and revisions for visa regulations and enforcement, to incentives for employers to hire veterans.
And of course the conversation focused on the American Jobs Act, and Solis’ belief that the politics and obstructionism have muffled much of the message. “There are a lot of incentives that are in the package that you are not hearing about. All you are hearing from our opponents is that it is a drag on our economy and that it will add to the deficit,” she claimed, enumerating issues such as closing tax loopholes, ensuring that people over 50 who are looking for work aren’t discriminated against by employers who refuse to call them in for interviews, creating public-private partnerships, and making provisions for new entrepreneurs and microenterprises.
As she discussed the Administration’s plan for incentives to hire young people ages 16 to 24, Solis appealed to the SVN audience. “We need to do something so that we do not lose that talent, lose that power and the potential that young people have,” she said. “I would urge you to consider thinking about how you might be able to work that into your own programs to hire young people either on your own or through incentives through federal government,” she continued.
Solis spent time listening to SVN members discuss their businesses and ideas for sustainability and jobs creation, and she offered up her own story as an example. “I go back to my own roots, how my parents came here, worked very hard, left poverty to come here and they didn’t want a hand out, they didn’t want to get in line to ask for welfare. They came here to contribute, and to offer something up, that the American public and everyone embraced at that time. And some of us still embrace that. We honor diversity and we honor the contributions and talents of the many people around this world,” she said.
“I am very optimistic. A lot of people ask me – Secretary why did you take this job? With the highest rate of unemployment in history that you’ve ever seen, why did you take this job? Well I didn’t look at it that way. I looked it as the glass was half filled not half empty. And I thought there’s still a lot in there that I can do. And this President has given me the opportunity to help him with that vision.”
Photo credit: Social Venture Network