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Before securing a position as a manager at KC Can Compost, a nonprofit dedicated to reshaping Kansas City’s approach to environmental and social causes, Chris Shelar was unhoused off and on for eight years.
Now 60, Shelar lived in outdoor spaces and panhandled for change to get by. Eventually, he found steady work as a cook with Shelter KC: A Kansas City Rescue Mission. His job in the kitchen led to his connection with KC Can Compost, which pursues a dual mission of diverting food and other organic waste from landfills while providing jobs for people who face barriers for employment.
Shelar’s first post with the nonprofit was as a member of its board. “At first I was on their board of directors to represent the homeless and the mission of Shelter KC,” he said. “And the more I became involved on the board, the more I became interested and I really wanted to help any way I could.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Shelar volunteered to drive a KC Can truck to pick up food waste, which gets put back into soil to grow healthy foods. Eventually Shelar enrolled in KC Can’s Green Core Training program, which prepares people who face barriers to employment for jobs in the environmental sector.
“After I got involved in the class, it just became very interesting,” Shelar said. “And it opened my eyes to a lot of environmental issues and environmental injustice that we have.”
Green jobs are employment opportunities in the growing movement to lower greenhouse emissions and protect the environment. According to Kansas City’s Climate Protection & Resilience Plan, investment in clean energy provides three times as many jobs as investment in fossil fuels.
Groups like KC Can Compost see green jobs as a natural fit for people who are turned away by other industries because they didn’t finish school or have histories of housing instability, addiction, incarceration and other difficulties.
“These green jobs are kind of for all skill levels and education levels,” said Adison Banks, one of two directors of Green Core Training.
Examples of green jobs include installing solar panels, working on wind farms, working with food waste and recycling.
“A lot of these jobs provide on-the-job training if you don’t have experience, and a lot of these jobs don’t require a college degree, which opens up doors for people,” Banks said.
According to Kansas City’s Climate Protection & Resilience Plan, fewer than 25% of employees in these fields have a bachelor’s degree.
The plan, which the Kansas City Council passed in 2022, commits the city to a 100% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from electricity consumption by 2030, as well as prioritizing climate protection in city government decisions.
“This curriculum really opens people’s eyes to what our future could look like, how we can transform our entire society to make it so that we’re not destroying the planet and hurting people and killing people,” Banks said. “How can we have jobs that nurture the planet and keep people healthy?”
Green Core Training
KC Can Compost launched in 2019 and started Green Core Training in 2021. In its first year, Green Core Training worked exclusively with people who were unhoused or have previously dealt with houselessness.
The program has since expanded to include formerly incarcerated men and youth aging out of foster care. It is working on plans to provide training to specific neighborhoods along the Troost Avenue corridor in 2023.
“People who have been historically excluded from the labor market need to have these green jobs,” Banks said. “These jobs are the future of our city, the future of the planet.” Over the length of the course, which runs for five weeks and 100 hours, students learn about environmental issues, proposed solutions and potential jobs within the green sector. They receive a $200 stipend while in training.
One of the two major components to the Green Core course is the Roots of Success curriculum, a resource for green jobs educational and workforce programs across the country.
Instructors such as Banks are coached in a one-day training workshop, after which they receive a lifetime instructor certification.
Students learn about the six sectors of the green economy: green buildings, renewable energy, food and agriculture, transportation, waste and water. Within these sectors, there are more than 125 different jobs and career pathways.
Upon completing the program, students receive a pre-apprenticeship certification from the U.S. Department of Labor.
The second leg of the Green Core Training is Conover Online, a program for assessing and teaching life skills necessary for success in the workforce, such as communicating effectively, teamwork and problem solving.
Green jobs aren’t for everyone
As Chris Shelar has learned, the green jobs sector can be a welcoming place for people who have struggled. But he has also found that those struggles don’t disappear when students sign up for Green Core Training.
“When you’re dealing with the homeless, you run into all sorts of different problems,” Shelar said.
A major problem is transportation.
“The vast majority of our students don’t have vehicles,” Banks said.
Students tend to rely on public transit, but in Kansas City riders are often met with delayed buses, long wait times and complex reroutes.
“It’s difficult to navigate that and arrive at work on time,” Banks said.
To address this, KC Can Compost holds most of its classes at locations along mass transit routes, like the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library. For other classes, like the ones taught at the Transition Center of Kansas City, instructors bring the training to where trainees are living.
Instructors also try to help graduates find employment that works for their needs, whether it’s a job within walking distance for them or on a bus route they can reach.
About a third of Green Core students secure green employment after graduation, Banks said. The program is working to get that number up.
One issue is that some graduates find that green jobs require physical stamina and educational credentials that the training can’t provide.
That’s what happened after Robin Elliott graduated from Green Core training in April 2022. At 50 years old, she says her physique and stamina prevented her from seeking out many of the jobs in the sector that demand physically strenuous tasks. But she used her new skills and credentials to secure a concierge job at a hotel on the Country Club Plaza.
Elliott was seeking administrative work in the sector, but found the competition for jobs to be daunting.
“For some of the things that I was going for, most of my competition was at a master’s level,” she said.
“It was a very high barrier for me to get into what I would want to do. It would probably require me going back to school.”
Under pressure to find a job and pay bills, Elliott found a job as a concierge at a Kansas City hotel.
Elliott said Green Core Training had taught her how to re-create her resume and prepare for interviews. And despite not working in the sector, she is now more conscious about her use of water, recycling and composting.
“You don’t realize how much of an effect each person has on the environment just from their daily routine and what they do.”
As for Shelar, Green Core training allowed him to realize his passion for environmentalism and secure a position with KC Can Compost. When he first started working for the nonprofit, he was making $15 an hour. Now he makes $18 an hour as a manager.
At 60 years old, Shelar has found both a vocation and a passion in green jobs.
“We’re not trying to make a buck to better ourselves, we’re just trying to make the world a little bit better place,” he said.