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How Corps “Put Service to Work” in Green Infrastructure

The NatureWORKS team would like to thank Tyler Wilson, Director of Government Relations at the Corps Network, for contributing this guest blog. 

The Corps Network partners with organizations across the nation to provide comprehensive youth development programming for youth age 16-25 that includes job training, academic skills, leadership skills, and other supports with the goal of improving communities and the environment. Participating young people contribute to projects in conservation, infrastructure improvement, and human services. The Corps is made up of organizations such as: Civicorps (CA), the Greening Youth Foundation (GA), the Green Mountain Club (VT), the American Conservation Experience, and others.  

At the Corps Network, we like to say Corps “put service to work.” That is, Corps engage youth in conservation service projects that have a measurable impact on our communities and public lands. This is why we’re excited to be part of NatureWORKS—we know that the combination of nature, service, and workforce development can provide youth with innovative hands-on learning experiences that put them on a path to careers in green infrastructure (GI) or related fields.

Corps have been involved in GI since “green” was just a color. Our Corps are descendants of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which engaged millions of young men in conserving soil; building parks; planting countless trees; and restoring beaches, rivers, and lakes. The CCC constructed significant infrastructure that is still in use today.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the CCC, he hoped it would help keep youth “off city street corners.” The same holds true today, and in the wake of the Great Recession, service programs like Corps are still needed. Modern Corps are focused on helping diversify the conservation workforce and ensuring that all communities have the opportunity, knowledge, and resources to be their own environmental stewards.

The Corps Network’s partners work around the country, in every state and the District of Columbia. They follow a model of engaging youth (Corpsmembers), ages 16-25, in crews to perform conservation projects—such as GI—in our urban areas or on public lands. Tied to those projects, Corpsmembers also receive educational, workforce development, and supportive services to help them succeed and move on to the next step in a career or further education and/or training.

Our Corps are driven by the needs of the local community. With deteriorating water infrastructure in the United States and cash-strapped communities looking for alternatives to expensive gray (traditional infrastructure) projects, many Corps provide training on GI projects and associated operation and maintenance. Some Corps are even broadening their approach to include utility training with an eye on the “graying” of the utility workforce. In both infrastructure and the workforce, we’re helping to turn gray to green. 

Corps also emphasize an environmental justice and community benefits lens in their work. Communities affected most by environmental hazards and infrastructure projects often don’t have input into or benefit from the associated projects. Since our Corps are focused on the needs of local communities, we engage youth from the community directly in meaningful service projects, learn about the background and effects of the project or problems, and provide education to the residents. To promote increased community support for the project, we make sure local youth are benefiting through hands-on learning experiences, certificates and/or credentials, and strategic partnerships. These partnerships are essential for executing projects and helping Corpsmembers transition to jobs or further training.

We look forward to the results of the NatureWORKS study. It will not only help solidify the benefits of these partnerships, but also the benefits  of working together to accomplish more sustainable projects in local communities, and the career paths and economic benefits that can arise from a focus on GI and related projects. In fact, a recent study from BenDor et al [1] found that “the domestic ecological restoration sector directly employs 126,111 workers and generates $9.47 billion in economic output (sales) annually. This activity supports an additional 95,000 jobs and $15 billion in economic output through indirect (business-to-business) linkages and increased household spending.”

There is a lot of excitement around GI and making communities and landscapes more resilient. With so many more young people living in cities, oncoming retirements, and the need for more diversity in our workforce, it’s critical we engage youth in these efforts. It’s also important we ensure the youth we engage receive something meaningful with labor market value. That’s why we’re working with the Center for Watershed Protection on developing a certification in GI with the goal of developing a higher-level credential in the future.

With the release of the NatureWORKS report on GI workforce and job creation potential, the Corps Network will be able to better work with partners on an intentional effort to ensure a professionalized workforce is ready to move our landscapes and communities into a more resilient and sustainable future.

With the American Society of Civil Engineers grading our infrastructure at a D+ with $3.6 trillion in maintenance and improvement needs, it’s more obvious than ever that now is the time to act and engage the next generation of diverse conservation leaders.

Tyler Wilson is the Director of Government Relations at The Corps Network and a member of the NatureWORKS Advisory Group.

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[1] BenDor T., Lester T.W., Livengood A., Davis A., Yonavjak L. (2015) Estimating the Size and Impact of the Ecological Restoration Economy. PLoS ONE 10(6): e0128339. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128339