The Austin Civilian Conservation Corps (ACCC) began as a pandemic response program to help residents earn income and access green careers, and has evolved into a leading model for equitable, climate-focused workforce development. The ACCC, a collaboration with 10+ City departments and multiple community partners, has provided over 125 living-wage opportunities with supportive services, training, and career pathways for Austin’s underserved residents, and is actively shaping the green economy.
In mid-2020 the world was facing an unprecedented crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the medical affects, the disease was creating extreme economic consequences, especially for Austin workers in industries like food service and hospitality. The City of Austin (City) organization also had large amounts of federal recovery funding to help stabilize residents. This crisis had unexpectedly created the perfect conditions for innovation.
The City saw an opportunity to both provide income to residents who’d been economically affected by the pandemic and pursue equity-focused sustainability goals. Inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps program put in place in the 1930s to re-employ Americans and improve public lands, the City created the Austin Civilian Conservation Corps (ACCC), which would provide a living wage, certifications, training, and supportive services for struggling residents who wanted to transition into green careers. This would also help achieve the ambitious goals detailed in the City’s Climate Equity Plan.
The Innovation Office was tasked with creating the ACCC program in the fall of 2020. They convened a coalition of interested City departments to help identify the program’s initial structure, focus, and funding sources. The group knew the ACCC had to focus on creating equitable access to green jobs, since BIPOC communities are the most affected by climate change but have the lowest access to quality green careers, and because the original CCC was built on racist policies. The group also wanted to create a program structure that was immediately successful, but was also sustainable and scalable after the pandemic and advanced the City’s workforce development practices.
The ACCC group identified projects that City departments wanted to do, but didn’t have the capacity to coordinate. The group then identified non-profit partners who could hire and train residents, manage the work, pay at least $15/hr, and provide supportive services. By matching these groups and leveraging existing contract structures, the ACCC created over 100 new employment and training opportunities in a variety of focus areas, including green building, renewables, wildfire prevention, landscape maintenance, public art, and community engagement. The group also created a pilot of the green pathways program, which helped ACCC program graduates qualify for positions in the City organization. The Innovation Office also commissioned two resident lived-experience studies to understand what the community wanted and needed from the ACCC; a green economy analysis with the University of Texas to understand the trajectory of Austin’s green jobs landscape; and an accelerator program to help a variety of organizations create new capacity for green jobs. The program continued to gain momentum and exposure throughout 2021, and one of the team members was even asked to testify to the US House of Representatives about the ACCC’s successful model.
In 2022 the City provided an additional $6M of funding and two new full-time positions to manage the program, and moved it to a permanent home in the Parks and Recreation Department. The program has continued to evolve from a pandemic response measure to a permanent, climate workforce development initiative with equity at its core. With a strong focus on resident feedback, quality jobs, data collection and analysis, and wrap-around support, it is a model for Cities around the world looking to drive real progress on climate and equity goals. The ACCC will continue to scale in size and scope, and we anticipate that it will be a landmark program driving the green economy in Austin for years to come.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The ACCC represents the first time the City has created a workforce development program that was specifically aligned with its strategic goals and had equity at its core. The City typically outsources its workforce development to a large regional organization that administers programs based on its own long-term economic assessments. The ACCC was develop in-house, and focused specifically on pursuing the City’s sustainability goals. Furthermore, centering equity and residents’ lived experience led to an entirely different design; one where a living wage, supportive services, and strong career pathways are required for all programs under the ACCC initiative. Finally, the ACCC represents one of the City’s most successful collaborations between multiple departments and partner organizations which led to rapid development, iterating, and scaling of a now-permanent program. Not only has the ACCC created positive outcomes in Austin, it also advanced the innovation practices for the City.
What is the current status of your innovation?
The ACCC is fully in the implementation phase, but we also constantly collect and analyse data on residents’ experiences and outcomes to understand how the program can be improved and scaled effectively. We have also shared our research, feedback, and program model widely with local, regional, national, and international audiences who want to implement similar programs.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The ACCC had many collaborators, including City departments, community organizations, residents, and a university.
- City departments helped design the program and provided projects for the ACCC participants.
- Community organizations hired residents and managed the work, and also carried out lived experience research.
- Residents participated in the ACCC, and provided vital program feedback.
- The university researched Austin’s green economy to help inform the future direction of the program.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Residents are the ACCC’s primary beneficiary. They gain income, training, certifications, and careers through this program, which helps them thrive. Austin collectively benefits from the work the ACCC accomplishes. Partner organizations have been able to design new programs and policies by working with the ACCC, and the City has advanced its workforce development, climate action, equity, and innovation practices through developing this program.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
- Key ACCC outcomes include 125+ paying, supportive opportunities for residents who what to pursue green careers.
- Residents have also had the opportunity to shape the program much more extensively than usual.
- The City has gained new pipelines of qualified workers, an effective and efficient means of pursuing its climate and sustainability goals, and a successful, multimillion-dollar permeant equity-focused workforce development program.
- Our partner organizations have been able to design new programs, policies, and lines of business that stem directly from the work with the ACCC, and receive awards and funding for their work.
- Austin’s landscape has improved due to landscape restoration and maintenance, increased renewables, decreased wildfire risk, public art installations, reduced emissions, and new natural amenities due ACCC participants’ work.
- The green economy is also experiencing job growth from the new programs instituted under the ACCC.
Challenges and Failures
- The ACCC initially had limited funding, so the team had to leverage existing resources to develop the program. By identifying work that departments had funding for but no capacity to manage, we were able to align over $2M dollars to fund the ACCC. The ACCC structure allowed us to accomplish this work for less cost than City staff or contractors would require. This success led to $6M in funding and two permanent positions for the ACCC.
- Our initial program design was not meeting resident needs. Through feedback we learned that while participants loved the work, ACCC programs did not provide enough pay or supportive services to drive participation. After learning this, we redesigned the program to fill these gaps.
- Finally, the ACCC did not align with the City’s existing workforce development practices. By intentionally housing the ACCC outside of the department responsible for workforce development, we were able to develop the initiative without conflicting with other ongoing programs.
Conditions for Success
Conditions that helped the ACCC succeed included political support, alignment with City strategic goals, significant federal funding from the COVID recovery legislation, and broad support for climate and sustainability action in Austin. Political and organizational support (in this case, a mandate from City Council) was crucial to driving internal engagement for creating the ACCC.
To our knowledge the ACCC program structure has not been wholly replicated. However, the City and partner organizations continue to create new or expand existing climate-focused workforce development programs using the ACCC model and structure. The Travis County, TX government also created a Conservation Corps program that is similar in nature based on the ACCC’s early success. We have been contacted numerous times for information on the program from other cities, state legislatures, international organizations, and even the US Congress, so we are confident elements of the ACCC is informing and inspiring programs across the globe.
- Creating aligning with partners' goals is crucial for gaining support while developing innovations. In our case, the ACCC could do work for less cost than other options, so partners were willing to fund the program's early stages. This also let us create tangible outcomes by providing needed work.
- Political support is extremely beneficial. We had a political champion who fought hard for this program throughout its development, which created a safety net as we addressed early challenges.
- A resident focus is key. By centering resident voices during our development and iteration, we were able to create a popular program that grows and evolves with community needs.
- Create a safe space to innovate. Initially the ACCC was coordinated by the Innovation Office. This means no department's policies would hamper development and the ACCC could take a novel form. Later, we sited it outside of the department responsible for workforce development so it could develop and scale independently.
- Implementation - making the innovation happen
3 January 2023