Smart Spending on Energy Efficiency is the Key to Creating Construction Jobs

7/22/10

As Congress weighs legislation to address persistent concerns about high unemployment, the construction sector in particular demands urgent attention. With investment in new homes and commercial buildings stalled at historically low levels, the unemployment rate for skilled construction workers is now more than twice the national average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 1.9 million construction jobs have dried up since December 2007, and even as the overall unemployment rate has dropped below 10 percent, about one in five American construction workers now face the frightening prospect of long-term unemployment.

Fortunately, a viable solution to this crisis is now moving through Congress. The Home Star Retrofit Act of 2010, which was approved by the House of Representatives in May and now resides in the Senate, was conceived as a cost-effective two-year plan to stimulate rapid job creation in construction and manufacturing while helping Americans save money on their energy bills.

The basic idea behind Home Star is to generate an immediate spike in the market for cost-effective home energy retrofits—insulation, weatherization, HVAC upgrades and the like—by offering short-term consumer incentives and longer-term energy improvement financing options. Participating homeowners would permanently reduce their household energy costs (and consequently contribute to lower overall generation costs for public utilities), while the increased demand for skilled home improvement work would create good, living-wage jobs for tens of thousands of construction workers who have been sidelined by the recession.

The benefits of this plan are numerous. First, energy retrofits require site-specific labor that cannot be outsourced overseas, and idled construction workers can easily and quickly be retrained to do the work. Second, the caulking, insulation, sheet metal, HVAC equipment and other manufactured goods used in energy retrofits are overwhelmingly produced by American mills and factories, so growth in this sector would create additional jobs in construction-related manufacturing and retail. And while Home Star was primarily conceived as a cost-effective way to breathe life back into the construction industry, the program also would help to control rising energy costs for American consumers, significantly reduce building-related greenhouse gas emissions, and promote national security by reducing our dependence on imported energy.

Home Star has the potential to create an estimated 168,000 new jobs in construction and related industries over the next two years, with the ultimate goal of jump-starting a prosperous private industry that can stand on its own two feet and continue to provide construction industry employment long after the incentives have been phased out.

This bipartisan legislation has gained strong support from a broad coalition of policymakers, business leaders, trade associations, environmental groups and nonprofit organizations, ranging from local contractors and HVAC services to the Sierra Club and the United States Chamber of Commerce. Much of the hiring would be done by small business owners in all 50 states who are already engaged in saving American homeowners money on their energy bills, and are poised to grow as soon as the Home Star program become a reality.

Despite widespread national support for the proposal, Home Star has made little progress in the Senate since May, but the program will be in included in a pared-down Senate energy bill outlined this week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Speedy passage of this important legislation is key to getting our economy back on track, for the sooner we can get Home Star signed into law, the sooner we’ll be able to get hardworking Americans off the unemployment rolls and back in productive jobs that are good for the nation and good for the environment.

To learn more about the Home Star legislation and how you can support its passage, please visit www.efficiencyfirst.org/homestar and www.homestarcoalition.org.

Matt Golden is the founder and president of San Francisco-based Recurve Inc. (formerly Sustainable Spaces), and policy chair of Efficiency First, a national trade association representing home energy contractors and related businesses. Follow @

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