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Community college grant funds training for low wage jobs

Recently, I ran across a press release from earlier this year. In it, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a grant to St. Louis Community College for brownfield remediation training. Brownfield remediation involves a great deal of hazardous material removal.

These materials could include lead and other dangerous metals; chemical contaminants; asbestos; and mold. Additionally, the grant funds specialized training in the movement and transportation of hazardous materials.

All of this sounds great. Environmental sanitation is an expanding field. Generating more qualified hazardous materials workers will provide significant support to the construction industry. The EPA is even funding this training program at the community college level. (Most often, the people who fill these positions have nothing more than a high school diploma.)

Hazardous waste removal is an important job. The people who do this handle toxins every day. They are the first step in reclaiming contaminated sites for safe reuse. Proper handling and disposal of toxic waste is essential to protect our communities, land and waterways.

So, I was more than a little disappointed to find that the training the EPA is funding leads to jobs that pay $14 per hour. Do you want the person who removes hazardous materials from your community making less than $30,000 per year? That seems like one of those situations where the person doing the work is not being paid enough to care. Further, there is little to no compensation for the risk that person takes when s/he handles toxic materials.

Worse, the federal government is contributing to the poverty problem by funding training for abysmally low-wage jobs. The community college is also complicit in generating an impoverished workforce.

Community college should not be a dumping ground for low-wage jobs

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a hazardous materials handler is generally paid $23-$24 per hour. That’s a more appropriate wage for someone who not only requires specialized training, but also certification to work in the field of hazardous waste.

The proper handling, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste is a public policy issue. Often, it is the government (at some level) that pays for hazardous materials remediation and monitoring. The EPA has a stake in getting workers trained properly in the disposal of hazardous materials. Yet, they are willing to fund a training program that promises less per hour than those workers could make at a fast food restaurant.

This is exactly why community college enrollment has dropped. When community colleges deliberately seek out federal grants to train workers for dangerous occupations that pay poorly, we have lost.

Photo Credit: Hope For Gorilla , via Flickr