Gotham Gazette

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Seeking a Greener Life After Wall Street

job training
Fiona Dhrimaj, Levin Institute
People who lost their jobs in finance learn about opportunities in small business, entrepreneurship and the emerging"green" economy.

The professionals with coffee cups and laptops spread out in front of them as they followed a lecture about government incentives for energy efficiency projects had something in common. They all had lost jobs in finance, swept out of interesting and lucrative jobs by the recession.

Among them was a 57-year-old man who used to run a platinum metals desk in New York for a family business from South Africa, a 33-year-old former technology analyst for a brokerage firm and a woman who once supervised the New York Stock Exchange's websites.

Those attending the career session at the State University of New York's Levin Institute in midtown Manhattan also were united in their willingness to look beyond Wall Street for their next jobs. After finishing a weeklong seminar on small businesses and entrepreneurship, 45 people stayed on for a second week of "green finance boot camp," said Helene Rude, the institute's director of educational services. The group spilled out of the main room into a nearby conference room where the attendees followed the presentations by video hook-up. "Why wouldn't you invest another week in something that's quote, unquote hot?" asked Rude.

The Levin Institute is contracted by the city's Economic Development Corp. to run the JumpStart program, which helps laid-off workers transition into new jobs. The program is open to professionals who worked in the financial services industry and lost their jobs due to the economic downturn. Participants, who attend at no cost, also must be New York City residents. Admission is based on a review of resumes and essays.

The current contract, which runs from December 2009 to the end of 2011, provides $300,000 for Levin to carry out several JumpStart programs benefiting a total of 300 out-of-work financial services workers, according to the Economic Development Corp.

While the main focus of the program is helping financial services workers, JumpStart also this year held a pilot program for laid-off media employees.

A Green Week

The green session, which ends this month, was designed to present out-of-work finance professionals with opportunities in the growing fields of developing, producing marketing and selling energy efficient technology and other environmentally friendly products and techniques. It addressed two economic goals of the Bloomberg administration -- keeping talented people shed by Wall Street from leaving the city and helping a vibrant green economy grow.

"When you match really smart business people up with really smart entrepreneurs, really interesting things happen," said Rude.

After they complete the session, participants are placed in 10-week, unpaid "consultant-ships" so they can gain experience.

It is difficult to pinpoint just how many job opportunities now exist in the green finance sector, but people involved in the JumpStart program see possibilities. They drew a parallel between the current potential for growth in green sector companies and the Internet bubble of the 1990s.

"The green movement is sort of like where the Internet was a dozen years ago, new and ready to explode," said participant Frank Provenzano, 33, who used to work in sales and marketing at a Wall Street firm. He said he came to JumpStart program primarily to learn about entrepreneurship but is glad he attended the green finance boot camp. "This has definitely opened up my eyes to how much opportunity there is," he said.

Provenzano knows that with opportunities come risks. The Internet bubble of the 1990s burst, forcing many companies to close down, something that could happen to the green sector as well. "A lot of start-up companies will come out of it, perhaps 10 percent will hit it big,” he said.

Filling the Jobs Gap

As the green sector began to emerge in the past few years, the city's finance and insurance industries lost tens of thousands of jobs. According to the Economic Development Corp., finance and insurance peaked in November 2007 when they supported 350,200 jobs. This May, that number stood at 311,000, the agency said.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration was looking at efforts to add green jobs to the city's economy. Last October, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged to double the city's green-sector jobs from 13,800 to 27,600 by 2018.

"The impetus really came from city," Rude said. "They had done some research into the sector and really wanted to redirect some of the financial talent that lost its jobs into different areas and green finance was one of them."

Figures on how many green jobs have been created so far are not available, according to the Economic Development Corp.

The seminar covered a number of types of green finance including carbon emissions trading, opportunities in renewable energy start-up companies, green project finance and socially responsible investing, she said. Among the sessions offered were: "Making Some Green on 'Green'," led by Daniel Byrd, director of research for Virid Capital Management; "The Empire State Building and Large Scale Retrofits," on how the city's tallest building is becoming more energy efficient; and "What's Blowin' in the Wind?," a discussion of how wind can be distributed as an energy source, led by Russell M. Tencer, CEO of Wind Products, LLC.

The participants also learned they could make themselves valuable to future employers by understanding the Byzantine web of government incentives and tax breaks for energy efficiency improvements. They heard how green energy start-up companies needed financial expertise.

One such company, New York-based Solaire Generation, which makes solar-panel carports for parking lots, took two of the boot camp participants. One, a lawyer, provided legal help with a contract while the other helped to create a marketing plan, said La Vonda Williams, the company's chief operating officer. The company's decision to take on JumpStart consultants, she said, was prompted partly by its desire "to add momentum to several projects that had been placed on the back burner."

She added, "We were not just looking for financial skills, but multi-faceted individuals who could contribute on several fronts -- creativity, relationship building, legal strategy, etc."

Needed:Green Jobs

Most everyone involved in the program agreed that it made sense for the city to nurture the green finance sector and to encourage its talented workforce to seek out opportunities there.

"It's a win, win, win situation," said Danielle Gustafson, a boot camp participant who was the former managing director of global websites for the New York Stock Exchange. "It's a win for the consultants, for the companies where these consultants land and it's a win for New York City in terms of giving it an injection of talent into that start-up economy."

The classes, though, will not be successful if the jobs do not exist. People involved in the program acknowledged that green finance is a fledgling sector that has just started to grow and that opportunities are still limited.

Like some of the other participants, Gustafson did not end up at a "green" company for her consultancy position. Instead, she got a place at dotbox, a social media, e-commerce company. Nevertheless, she found the knowledge she gained during the boot camp on green finance useful. "It's already increased my clout," she said. "Whether I land back at some corporation, or land at a start-up, or kind of augment my existing consulting practice, it definitely was a good booster for me."

Rude said her efforts to place the participants at green companies were challenging. "It was a little tough because it's an emerging industry," she said. "There aren’t that many companies that can really bring someone on board because they are so busy trying to get the company off the ground.

"But that said, there are quite a number of entrepreneurs in the city who are venturing into green" and who need help, she said. "People who are starting these companies, they may know the technology really well but they may not have the same kind of business acumen."

Waiting for Trading

The city had placed a lot of hope for job growth in carbon emissions trading, but with a new national energy policy stalled in Congress, those opportunities have not developed.

The key to these jobs would be a national "cap-and-trade" policy, in which the government sets caps on the amount of pollutants utilities and other industries can emit. Those companies, in turn, are allowed to trade their allowance permits among themselves. The legislation, a version of which passed in the House of Representatives, is stalled in the U.S. Senate.

"The legislation has moved slower than everybody has hoped," said Ann Li, the director for financial services and international business at the Economic Development Corp.'s Center for Economic Transformation. "A huge part, if not the biggest part, of whether or not we have a vital carbon market depends on government legislation."

Currently, the New York Mercantile Market does handle some emissions trades, mainly from the European market. If the U.S. adopts a cap-and-trade policy, the number of carbon trades would increase greatly. To address that potential growth, efforts are underway to create a New York City-based Green Exchange.

"We think the prospect of an American carbon market is definitely on the board pending the creation of an important legislative framework," said Henry Bakker, the exchange's director of communication . "New York City, as a major international finance center, is particularly well-placed to become a global carbon finance hub."

Despite the uncertainties, the green finance boot camp included two days of presentations by Robert Rabinowitz of the London-based , European Climate Exchange, who talked about how he sees this type of trading developing in the United States. Rabinowitz addressed the April seminar via video-hookup because his flight to New York was grounded by the Icelandic volcano ash cloud.

Li said the city wants to make sure to be prepared if and when carbon trading becomes a going concern. "Once you can put a price to pollution you will have a market," she said. "We want to make sure New York City captures that market."

Vera Haller, the former editor-in-chief of amNew York and editor of, currently teaches journalism at Baruch College.

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