Philly's green infrastructure plans are creating jobs and opportunity

Diving into a New Life

by Marilyn Anthony

Paul Johnson is an Aquarius who believes he has found his life’s work with water. 
A few years ago, Johnson, a 24-year old Strawberry Mansion resident, didn’t have promising prospects. An aimless year at community college, followed by a series of low-paying jobs in security, maintenance, fast food and summer camps characterized his early adulthood. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, so I just did anything I could get,” Johnson says. “I didn't have any goals, long or short term. I’m an Aquarius and I was kinda going with the wind.” 

Then Johnson joined PowerCorpsPHL, an AmeriCorps jobs program, and discovered the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Partners Initiative. PowerCorpsPHL introduced Johnson to stormwater management, but even more importantly to Pat Edouard, a Senior Crew Leader, who teaches life and work lessons that are contributing to Johnson’s success. Edouard believes that “green jobs are nothing but upward mobility… there’s going to be local GSI companies who all live, work and play in Philly. It’s gonna be huge.”

His words sank into Johnson’s ears, and changed his perspective. “Pat Edouard told me it’s better to have goals, and if you want to work, make yourself invaluable.” Johnson says his PowerCorpsPHL work convinced him there were people who wanted him to succeed. 

After six months at PowerCorpsPHL, Johnson joined a field crew on a Philadelphia Water Department (PWD) job, then advanced to assistant field crew leader, teaching a group of 10 youths. Johnson applied for a position at the environmental consulting firm AKRF, and was hired last March as a Green Infrastructure Landscape Maintenance Technician. With additional training, he was able to pass a certification exam, and in June was promoted to an office position as Pipe Assessment Inspector, troubleshooting water systems.

In addition to his work at AKRF, Johnson serves as a mentor with PowerCorpsPHL, attends Community College, aims to pursue an Environmental Engineering degree at Drexel University, and join Drexel’s Co-op with the Philadelphia Water Department.  

A $2.4 billion dollar investment in green infrastructure

In 2011, PWD launched the Green City, Clean Waters program. They pledged to spend $2.4 billion over 25 years to augment the city’s water system with thousands of innovations to mitigate stormwater, making Philadelphia a national leader, according to Shandor Szalay, AKRF 's senior vice president for water resource practices. 

Creating green jobs is a key component of the Green Stormwaters Initiative (GSI).  Jamie Gauthier, Executive Director of the Sustainable Business Network of Philadelphia (SBN), helped form the GSI Partners Initiative in 2012. With seed money from the Surdna Foundation, SBN gathered 60 locally owned businesses working in sustainable water management. GSI member businesses include systems engineers and designers, materials manufacturers and suppliers, contractors, builders and certified maintenance technicians. “There’s a huge opportunity [for young adults] to learn, to work in local businesses, to start their own businesses, and to be innovators in this field.” Gauthier says, noting that “over the last year, we’ve seen a 13.5 percent increase in total revenues for our GSI businesses and the creation of 40 new full-time positions and 25 new seasonal jobs.”  

Both Gauthier and AKRF’s Szalay expect accelerated job growth as more water projects come online. Szalay says AKRF has already installed hundreds of sites maintained by crews, but ultimately anticipates “thousands of sites… [generating] a lot more activity and job creation.” 

PowerCorpsPHL alumni might fill many of these new jobs. The AmeriCorps green jobs incubator began in 2013, designed in part to support Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s environmental stewardship initiatives. According to their website each year, PowerCorpsPHL enrolls 136 at-risk 18-to-26-year-olds in a six-month AmeriCorps program that “provides participants with the opportunity to develop the skills required to become environmental stewards, secure meaningful work and become civically engaged members of society.” 

A few years ago, Paul Johnson’s relationship with water was as common as most people’s. “I drink it, wash up with it,” Johnson says. “Now I know how important water is. I like what the water systems do and how many benefits they have for society… it makes me feel good that I’m one of the people making