Climate Story #2: Sam Steyer, Greenwork

In our second episode of Climate Stories, we delve into the burgeoning green workforce development movement and its critical role in decarbonizing the economy. Entrepreneur Sam Steyer is using a technology platform to connect skilled labor in green construction and manufacturing with companies in dire need of this workforce.

“Happy First Birthday, Greenwork!!”

It’s been a bumpy two years for Sam Steyer. In February, 2020, Sam’s career as a campaign surrogate ended when his father, Tom, bowed out of his race to become president of the United States. A year later, on March 31, 2021, Sam and his co-founder, Gautam Jayaraman, launched their start up firm, Greenwork. Approaching his company’s first birthday, Sam was philosophical. “It’s been a humbling experience,” he said in an interview with HBS’ Climate Stories. “Not all of our assumptions were correct and we’ve had an incredibly steep learning curve over this first year.”

During the campaign, Sam’s interest in climate change and sustainability shifted to workforce development and the construction trades. When he visited a Pueblo, Colorado wind tower manufacturing facility - the largest in the U.S - he was struck by the owners’ lament that they just couldn’t hire enough skilled trades people, industrial painters and welders, for example. Their pain point led Sam to start researching the world of green skilled trades.

Initially, Sam and Gautam saw their business being a platform to improve the green workplace by providing job training, “a Coursera for solar,” as Sam described it. Like many small businesses, though, the founders’ appreciation of the customer-product fit evolved. Today, the company’s website describes it as “a software company that connects workforce training programs to employers in clean energy, transportation, and the trades.” Overall, they learned that:

  • Trade schools and community development programs had tight budgets and not enough career placement staff. The trainers needed help managing their students’ personal data (resumes, specific skill sets, tracking outcomes with employers) and then connecting students with the best jobs.
  • Employers were enduring long project wait times – six months to a year after the sale to install – because they couldn’t find enough skilled trades labor. The delays were causing lost revenue, slowed sales and limited growth because too many customers would get tired of waiting.
  • Jobseekers needed training and connections to good paying jobs, in safe environments.
  • Greenwork seeks companies that provide good-paying jobs with a strong track record of workplace safety. Companies looking for employees pay Greenwork a subscription fee (with various tiers) to have access to the platform. The company-program connection provides companies with the advantage of shaping the educational pipeline.
  • In turn, Greenwork approaches trade schools and workforce development programs and on-boards each organization and its students for free. The platform helps programs address problems of staffing and budgetary constraints for career placement, as well as data management to connect students to jobs. Greenwork’s platform also gives trainers the ability to track outcomes and build stronger employer relationships.

Sam explained the evolution: “We’re not a training company anymore. We are a hiring company, connecting trade schools with clean energy companies.”

Currently, Greenwork has some 500 job seekers on its platform and “tens of companies recruiting for more than 100 jobs.” The job categories include: solar installation technicians; HVAC maintenance and installation; assembly workers and machinists for advanced manufacturing; drivers for electric vehicle companies; and project management.

In today’s tight trades labor market, there are many more open roles than people. “There are plenty of really good employers that we trust who need hiring help,” Sam said. “And we want to stick with them.”

Deloitte has predicted some 2.1 million unfilled manufacturing roles in the United States by 2030. Sam thinks the burgeoning green jobs marketplace will include some 10 million jobs. “Yes. We’ll need electricians,” he said. “But we will also need more software engineers and marketers in the climate tech workforce.” He added, “We need to make these jobs more attractive to the young and dispel the notion that college has to be a first choice.”

Construction jobs – painters, electricians, carpenters etc. – can offer six-figure salaries, but, Sam said, “We have to be more transparent about pay. These workers need better benefits and more time off. There’s been a range of experiences in construction. We have heard stories about wage theft but, thankfully, we have not seen it directly ourselves.”

As an online “connector,” Greenwork markets its software to both training programs and companies.

The list of programs currently on the platform includes the California Conservation Corps, the Los Angeles CleanTech Incubator and the San Diego Workforce Partnership. Greenwork has deliberately focused its geographical reach to Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area, to make it easier to match jobs with job seekers. As the company grows, Sam envisions launching across the United States, starting with Austin and New York City. Already, though, individual programs are listed in 10 states: Ohio, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Indiana, Oregon and New York.

The goal is straightforward – helping great candidates stand out to employers. Sam explained, “First, we make it easy for job candidates to record the construction and energy certifications they’ve earned (e.g. NABCEP PV Associate or OSHA-10/OSHA-30). We also make it easy to share skills and experiences they have (e.g. have worked on a roof). Lastly, by bringing the instructors and career counselors from their schools onto the platform, we let employers hear from the advocate who knows them best.”

Sam observed that the job seekers, so far, have been diverse in race and gender; of all ages over 18; most do not have college degrees. But as he described them, “They are people who like to build stuff and to be close to manufacturing.”

Traditionally, trade unions have been the gatekeepers for jobs in the construction industries. Now that jobs for electricians, plumbers and carpenters are expanding into green job specialties like HVAC retrofitting, Sam has been pleased to see how helpful and friendly the trade unions have been and how willing to include women and minorities in their ranks. As an example, he cited the Alameda County Construction Trades Workforce Initiative, a consortium of unions and contractors, who’ve placed more than 100 women and people of color in jobs. “In 2022, the building trades unions have a genuine commitment to diversity,” he said.

Anniversaries can provide opportunities for reflection. As he approaches the start of Greenwork’s second year, Sam is hopeful about the future of the green workforce movement, as well as the climate change movement overall. Given his recent presidential campaign role, national politics is never far from his thinking.

“I believe in the people in the climate movement.” Yes, the failure of Congress to pass the Build Back Better bill so far has been disappointing, but Sam sees three major reasons to be upbeat:

1. We now have a confluence of cost parity with regard to solar panels, electric vehicles, and heat pump replacement for furnaces and water heaters.

2. Gen Z is more outspoken, more strident in calling for climate action. Young people are having a huge impact on politics, on culture, on where people want to work and that’s influencing the climate change debate for the better.

3. Yes, there have been some defeats, but zoom out across the United States where 15 states have approved binding 100% renewable energy goals by 2030.

“The drumbeat of policy,” Sam offered, “goes in only one direction.” He added, “I don’t know if we will meet the 2030 CO2 reduction goals. But we will end up with a stable, livable climate. It’s not a binary question about the level of degrees of warming before human civilization ends. After huge amounts of stress and conflict, we will have a livable climate.”

Greenwork may be just one player in the new green workforce, but Sam is proud of the contributions it’s already making. “I decided to use my background as a founder and a software engineer to build something that would contribute a small part to this broader vision of rebuilding a large, well-paid, highly-trained industrial workforce in the U.S. It’s a critical step on the path to decarbonizing the United States.”

To hear more from Sam Steyer and his experiences with his Greenwork start up, listen to his interview on the Tactical Toolbelt podcast:

Images: Greenwork co-founders Sam Steyer and Gautam Jayaraman; Greenwork rooftop solar installation

About Climate Stories

Climate Stories is a series researched and written by Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) and Produced by Lynn Schenk, Director, Business and Environment Initiative

The HBS Business and Environment Initiative is excited to launch Climate Stories, a series of researched blog posts that tell the unique stories of the business leaders–CEOs, founders, advisors, and more–who are enabling climate solutions to thrive by seeing new business opportunities and focusing on the people who make those solutions both necessary and possible.

To accomplish the mission of Climate Stories, BEI is grateful to be working with Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978). Adams has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. Over the next few months, she will share a variety of stories that we hope will teach, inspire, and motivate our readers to create their own positive stories - ones which prioritize the human side of climate change.

About the Author

Jacqueline Adams (MBA 1978) has spent her career as a journalist, author, and convener. She and Bonita C. Stewart (MBA 1983) are co-authors of “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive” as well as a series of groundbreaking proprietary surveys, Women of Color in Business: Cross-Generational Survey©.