Austin native Darnell Johnson is a rare specimen — a Black man with his own firm in the area of environmental sustainability.
As a principal with Urban Efficiency Group, Johnson provides free environmental sustainability consulting services to local governments, particularly in underserved communities of color.
Johnson’s colleagues, Byron Payne and Stacy Johnson (who are also both Austin natives), own Urban Efficiency LLC, a companion firm that provides services like home weatherization and energy conservation consulting.
Last week, I met the three men at a municipal building in nearby Broadview, where they were installing a Retrotec Blower door at the building’s entrance.
“This depressurizes the home,” Stacy said during a test demonstration of the door. “Typically, we use it to test for air leakages — every crack and open spot that leads to the outside. This pulls air through those cracks so we can go around the home and find where the leaks are at and seal those leaks up, so that the home can be more energy efficient.”
But instead of tracking leaks, the Retrotec Blower door will be used to increase ventilation and lower people’s risk of contracting COVID-19 while inside of Broadview’s polling facilities on Nov. 3.
The installation was part of Urban Efficiency LLC’s and Urban Efficiency Group’s Healthy Voting Initiative, which is designed to help keep voters and election workers in predominately African American communities safe while at the polls.
“Most of the time, when people see guys doing this kind of work, it’s not us,” Darnell said. “And so Stacy and Byron have been very dedicated about letting people know that this is a career path.”
Darnell said one of the reasons there are so few Blacks working in the clean energy sector is due to a chronic lack of what he calls the three A’s: awareness, accessibility and affordability.
In addition to not seeing many people like them working in the field, many Blacks may also be locked out of clean energy employment due to the barriers to training opportunities and the steep cost of certifications.
“If the training is so far away from them and it’s not localized, they won’t necessarily have the means to getting to where the training is available,” Darnell said.
Stacy and Byron Payne said this is one of the reasons why they’re often willing to setup pop-up training sites to localize access.
Darnell said the other barrier, affordability, is due to the fact that a certification, which is critical to career advancement, can cost between $1,800 and $2,500.
“You can know about this and have access to the opportunities, but if you can’t afford to pay for certifications, then it doesn’t matter,” Darnell said.
He said that certifications for entry level jobs like air leakage controller and installer is between $1,800 and $2,000. It costs between $2,200 and $2,500 to get certified as a building analyst, a step above leakage controller and installer.
“To get to where Stacy and Bryon are, and those certifications aren’t all that they have, you’d have to spend in excess of between $12,000 and $15,000 to get the certifications that each of them has,” Darnell said. “And once you move from your mid-level to advanced certifications, there are a certain amount of hours you have to demonstrate in the field before you can even sit to take those certifications.”
In order to address those barriers to entry for minorities, Urban Efficiency LLC created an EcoWorks program designed to “recruit, train and employ a diverse workforce in the energy efficiency industry,” according to the firm’s website.
But the burden of pulling more Blacks into alternative energy and sustainable fields should not rest on the shoulders of Black people, who constitute barely a fraction of the workers and entrepreneurs within a burgeoning sector where wages are relatively high and the barrier to entry is relatively low.
For instance, the 2018 average hourly wage of insulation workers was around $26 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And you don’t need a college degree to become one. But Blacks, while 12 percent of the U.S. population, represent just 6 percent of the country’s insulation workers — the people who will help install, repair and apply the mechanical infrastructure that will help us more efficiently cope with a warming planet — according to a recent Brookings Institution report.
How can we push more young, Black people into these careers of the future — careers that can’t be easily outsourced, that will be critical to a world that’s adjusting to the pressures of climate change and that offer livable salaries, and pathways to entrepreneurship?
That task should fall to local, state and federal governments working in tandem to systemize the cultivation of more Darnell Johnsons, Byron Paynes and Stacey Johnsons.
“You can’t talk about a Green Economy and wanting to get more people into it,” Darnell said, “until you start talking about equity and establishing an equity lens.”
The conversation can start with local, state and federal lawmakers listening more to people like Darnell. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.