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Green Job Opportunities Increase While Questions Remain

By Abigail Rome
November 12, 2009

The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was hailed by the environmental and alternative energy community because of its provisions to stimulate the economy through the creation of millions of green jobs over the next ten years. It was looked upon as a win-win proposition for tackling global climate change and other environmental challenges, and for addressing high unemployment rates. However, a closer look at what's behind the green job fanfare has raised questions about the growth and types of employment that are considered green.

Generally speaking, green jobs are those in a variety of fields such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, green building, biofuels production, low-fuel and low emission vehicles, recycling, sustainable product design and manufacture, and conservation of natural habitats. Hot off the press are two studies examining trends in the growth and quality of green jobs.

Two new studies examine the growth of green jobs

One, released at the end of October by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), reports that tackling climate change in the U.S. could significantly increase the net number of new jobs. If Congress aggressively commits to programs that support long term development of energy efficiency and renewable energy (EE&RE), the U.S. could see a net growth of 4.5 million new jobs by 2030. At the same time, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced sufficiently to mitigate climate change.

"The twin challenges of climate change and economic stagnation can be solved by the same action--broad, aggressive, sustained deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency," said Brad Collins, ASES' Executive Director. "The solution for one is the solution for the other."

The report states that new jobs will be available over a wide range of skill and experience levels to include electricians, plumbers, carpenters, administrative assistants, machinists, cashiers, management analysts, civil engineers, and sheet metal workers. The construction and farming industries are likely to benefit the most, with employment opportunities available throughout the country. Because much of the work will need to be on-site, EE&RE jobs are not likely to be outsourced.

A second new study conducted by Clean Edge, Inc., a research and publishing firm devoted to the clean-tech sector, looks at job trends related to harnessing renewable materials and energy sources; reducing the use of natural resources by increasing efficiency and productivity; and cutting or eliminating pollution and toxic wastes. Based on studies of job placements, job postings, and public and private investments, it finds that the top five sectors for clean-tech job activity in the U.S. are solar; biofuels and biomaterials; conservation and efficiency; smart grid; and wind power.

The report indicates that a variety of green tech jobs pay well and provide job security. While identifying the top 15 metropolitan areas around the U.S. where clean tech job activity will be highest, as well as geographic clusters of clean tech expertise around the world, the authors state that these areas "are far from the only places to find quality employment in the sector. The clean-tech revolution is a highly dispersed phenomenon -- unlike the earlier high-tech revolution with its epicenter of Silicon Valley. No one place or region will control any one clean-tech sector."

Questions raised about green job definitions, trends and quality

In spite of rosy predictions for the green jobs movement, there is dissidence among cautious observers. The controversy focuses on issues such as actual job growth, quality and compensation, and environmental impacts of green jobs. Some dissenters also confuse the issue by voicing doubts around green job growth as objections to the proposed cap and trade agreement and other incentives to reduce climate change and increase investments in green technology, energy efficiency and environmental responsibility.

One of the issues that is debated is how green jobs are counted. An article in Slate Magazine explains that much of the research examining green job creation and growth simply counts the payrolls of companies in renewable energy, ignoring the fact that energy generated from alternative sources displaces jobs associated with energy that is generated by traditional means. That is, the loss of jobs due to the greening of the economy is not factored into calculations.

The Institute for Energy Research (IER), a free-market, pro-business research group has a similar complaint. As reported in a New York Times article a study funded by IER finds that many previous studies have over-hyped the potential to create good green jobs by overlooking job losses such as those arising from the closure of polluting industries such as coal-fired power plants. In response to this critique, the new ASES study took pains to emphasize the distinction between the total numbers of jobs in the energy field and the new jobs that will be created.

Debate about how well green jobs pay

Another common point of contention is discussed in a article in Marketwatch. It asserts that the majority of new green jobs will be low-paying blue collar jobs requiring little or no higher education. That is, they will not be high quality, nor offer room for advancement. It cites reports stating that the positions most likely to be filled will be for low-paying jobs in construction, farming, HVAC installation, maintenance, carpentry, electricity, landscaping and garbage collection.

The Clean Edge study refutes this claim, as well as the argument that when a manufacturing facility is closed, jobs are automatically lost. In fact, it cites examples of formerly shuttered factories, often in hard-hit industrial areas, being retooled to produce products and services useful for new and emerging clean-tech activities.

A study conducted by Worldwatch Institute for the United Nations Environment Program points out that green jobs are not always considered good jobs. One example is in electronics recycling, where poor, unskilled workers are employed to recover raw materials, thus reducing pressure on natural resources. Many of these jobs expose workers to hazardous substances, posing health risks and causing environmental damage. These jobs offer little security, may pose safety hazards, and are usually low pay.

Definitions remain unclear

The Marketwatch article brings up a basic point regarding the meaning of the term green job. It states that the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has yet to compile real data on green jobs, nor to come up with a definition. The Slate article offers an example of ambiguity, pointing out that a recent United Nations report estimated that the heavily subsidized U.S. ethanol industry provides employment for approximately five times as many people as the wind power industry and nearly 10 times as many as the solar industry.

However, ethanol is hardly considered a green fuel. Massive ethanol production is often responsible for increasing deforestation in developing countries and aggravating food shortages when cropland is used for fuel production. In addition, it requires significant inputs of fossil fuels. Ethanol production can only be considered green because that it provides jobs in the alternative energy field.

Progress continues in spite of questions

So, what to make of these critiques? Will there be a massive growth in green jobs over the next 20 years? And, will they fit the definition of green jobs given by Phil Angelides, the chair of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups championing green employment? In a Time article, he says a green job "has to pay decent wages and benefits that can support a family. It has to be part of a real career path, with upward mobility. And it needs to reduce waste and pollution and benefit the environment."

Time will tell, but the two recent studies - identifying real net growth in employment and establishing the broad range of economic and geographic opportunities for working in the green sector - are important steps towards shedding light on the debate and, eventually, towards creating a sustainable economy.

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