Growing Jobs Through Green Stormwater Infrastructure: The Philadelphia Experience

Published jun. 23, 2016

In the spring of 2016, Kevin Doyle, lead NatureWORKS researcher, interviewed Anna Shipp, Project Manager of the Sustainable Business Network (SBN) of Greater Philadelphia, a non-profit membership organization working to build a thriving and sustainable economy in the region. Shipp, a member of the NatureWORKS National Advisory Group at Jobs for the Future was joined by Lee Huang, Senior Vice President and Principal of Econsult Solutions about SBN’s January 2016 report Green City, Clean Waters: The First Five Years. The report evaluates the progress made during the first five years Philadelphia’s Green City, Clean Waters project, a 25-year plan to reduce stormwater pollution through green infrastructure. It is a first-of-its-kind study of the benefits of metropolitan investments in green infrastructure for stormwater management, which include significant job support. 

The success of Green City, Clean Waters has created a growing interest in designing professional development programs for green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) operations and maintenance careers, to meet the need for qualified green infrastructure professionals who can install and maintain GSI systems. In response, Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) Partners, an initiative of SBN, managed the design of the region’s first GSI Operations and Maintenance course. Participants complete the course with a basic understanding of Philadelphia’s regulatory context around stormwater management, best management practices, and how to both maintain the vegetation using adaptive and prescriptive management techniques and how to respond to safety and performance issues. SBN launched the course in September 2015 and plan to offer it annually. 

Doyle: Anna and Lee, let’s start with the sectors and occupations that make up the green infrastructure workforce. You note that a useful proxy for understanding the sector can be found by studying the member companies of SBN's Green Stormwater Infrastructure Partners (GSI) project. What kind of companies make up the "GSI" industry cluster?

Shipp: The Green Stormwater Infrastructure Partners, or GSI Partners for short, is a priority initiative of SBN working to advance the local GSI industry, innovation, and the local economy as it relates to GSI. Currently, we have 60 members that include locally-owned engineering and landscape architecture firms; landscape contracting firms; builders; and material suppliers whose services and products pertain to GSI design, build, and maintenance. While our members represent the main sectors that are involved in the GSI industry, we know they are just a subset of a larger cohort of local businesses in the region in this space. About half of our members are headquartered in Philadelphia. The rest are headquartered in Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

Doyle: One of the key findings of your report is that in 2014 "operations associated with Philadelphia's GSI projects" were "supporting 430 direct, indirect and induced jobs" annually, from $57,000,000 of total economic impact. Can you comment at all on the number of supported jobs that were direct jobs?

Shipp: Econsult Solutions looked at GSI Partners members’ reported annual revenue and reported full time and part time jobs numbers from 2013 to 2014. Because the report was about the first five years of Green City, Clean Waters, which is a Philadelphia plan, they crunched the numbers to focus on just Philadelphia-based firms within the GSI Partners membership. They also assumed that only part of these firms’ portfolios were in GSI, and that only part of that portfolio was work within Philadelphia city limits. Needless to say, the narrowing of just looking at GSI Partners headquartered in Philadelphia doing work in Philadelphia on GSI projects creates a very conservative estimate of the economic impact of investments in GSI in the City and region.

Huang: With the considerations Anna just mentioned—just GSI Partners firms headquartered in Philly, doing just GSI work in Philly—we determined that the DIRECT impact of current GSI Partner firms in Philadelphia is $35 million. The INDIRECT and INDUCED impact of these firms is $22 million. The combined DIRECT, INDIRECT, and INDUCED impact is $57 million, which supports 430 direct, indirect, and induced jobs and generates an additional $27 million in annual labor income within the City of Philadelphia.

Doyle: One of the big questions we've been looking into at NatureWORKS is the degree to which investments in green infrastructure support existing jobs at current firms, as opposed to creating new jobs and/or new start-ups. Does your research shed any light on this question?

Shipp: We’re seeing both. Forty GSI Partners responded to a March 2015 survey asking about annual revenue and employees in 2013 to 2014. These firms reported an increase of 40 full time jobs and 25 part-time or seasonal jobs from 2013 to 2014. Firms also reported expanded portfolios in GSI related services, and more work coming from Philadelphia since Green City, Clean Waters’ piloting and implementation.

Huang: Our research didn’t specifically address new versus old firms, but we did note that 24 GSI firms were founded after 2006 when Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) began to shift their stormwater fee structure and created their Stormwater Credits Program for non-residential customers. Ten GSI Partners firms were founded after June 2011 when Green City, Clean Waters was signed.

Doyle: You note that GSI is superior to "the (traditional) approach in generating on-ramps for individuals to find employment opportunities” and "labor input for GSI work presents entry-level (e.g. landscaping and restoration activities) with advancement opportunities for living wage levels and beyond." Can you tell us more about the data sources and analysis you undertook of the GSI "labor input" for the report?

Shipp: One of the many benefits of a green stormwater infrastructure approach, as projected in early reports, is that the nature of the work creates a variety of opportunities in a variety of sectors with a variety of entry points. For example, we’re seeing entry-level, mid-level, and experienced civil and water resources engineering jobs, as well as landscape contracting jobs for both entry-level and foreman positions.

Additionally, because green stormwater infrastructure design, build, and maintenance is related to other established sectors and because contracts tend to be smaller in size, we’re seeing that the work is more accessible to more local firms, including women- and minority-owned firms, many of which are smaller in size.

Doyle: In your report, you provide a useful overview of the exact type and location of "GSI" public and private project features that are constructed or planned. From the jobs support point of view, are you gathering any sense of which kind of specific features support the most jobs (e.g., rain gardens, bumpouts, tree trenches, pervious pavements, etc.)? Are there job support differences across the spectrum of "all green", "all gray" and "mix of green and gray"?

Shipp: Econsult Solutions didn’t look into jobs per feature type, but I’d argue that the green features have more indirect and local impact from the design, build, and long term maintenance, to the sourcing of the plants, soil, mulch, and other materials.

Doyle: To what extent are GSI opportunities available as part of the City’s programming around youth violence reduction, truancy prevention, and ex-offender reentry?

Shipp: Landscape contracting is an industry that tends to be particularly accessible to those with inconsistent or lack of job history, including those with criminal records. Additionally, as GSI projects continue to increase, there is a growing need for skilled professionals to perform ongoing GSI operations and maintenance. We’ve seen a number of programs that are meeting the need for ongoing operations and maintenance, and creating opportunities for at-risk youth and ex-offenders. For example, PowerCorpsPHL is an incredible AmeriCorps program that uses a service-learning model to advance goals such as youth violence prevention, skill-building for living wage job opportunities, beautification, and fostering stewardship of the city and its public spaces.

Doyle: The NatureWORKS team is exploring whether there is special job training or certification that could help people secure employment at GSI firms. Your report includes a profile of a 15-week course for high school students - including a 6-week paid in-field training which seems to have been successful. Can you tell us about it, and any other training, education, or certification efforts that seem to be useful to member company employers?

Shipp: I’m wary of saying a certificate or certification is an answer, unless maybe it’s in the context of existing curricula/professional development programs. I think that relevant degree paths can and should continue to build curricula that reflects where stormwater management is headed, namely in GSI.  The relevant trades should continue to develop pertinent skills and employers, to the extent possible, should support ongoing professional development of their employees, entry-level or tenured, to ensure they can keep up with or even ahead of this evolving industry.

Doyle: Your report also discusses the full "triple bottom line" impact of investing in GSI. Is there anything on these broader themes that you'd like to point us to by way of closing?

Shipp: In my mind, GSI is the perfect tool to achieve multiple goals that every city’s leadership should have on their minds: a strong local economy, social and environmental equity, forward thinking sustainability goals, effective and efficient use of capital…the list goes on. A comprehensive GSI approach to urban stormwater management puts nature back into the city, and creates a more livable and competitive city, which in turn feeds local economic growth. It contributes to a cycle of positive and equitable change.

*Content has been edited for clarity and length.