From energy-saving office buildings to hybrid cars, it sometimes seems the green economy is bigger than ever. Among the many supposed benefits of the environmental movement is the promise of new green jobs.
Many of these new green-collar jobs will actually be old jobs that have shifted over to cleaner, greener industries. For example, there are currently about 168,000 sheet metal workers and 386,000 welders in the United States. Both of these trades will be in increasing demand -- and enjoy increased wages -- for building wind turbines, solar equipment and energy-efficient vehicles, according to the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI).
Green Jobs or Green Hype?
But the hype about green-collar jobs can be difficult to separate from the reality. What exactly is a green job, where are they, and who's getting them?
It depends on who you ask. A report authored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and Global Insight determined that over 750,000 Americans were working in the green economy in 2006. Meanwhile, PERI estimates that many more -- over 14 million people -- now work in 45 green occupations. The actual number probably lies somewhere in between.
Forecasts of future employment in the environmental field are also hard to pin down. One out of every four workers in the United States will be working in the renewable energy or energy efficiency industries by 2030, trumpets the American Solar Energy Society (ASES). They also optimistically report that these jobs could generate between $1.9 and $4.5 trillion in annual revenue.
The report from ASES acknowledges, however, that any forecasting data depend heavily on definitions -- and there are no widely accepted definitions of "green collar," "alternative energy," "green economy" or the other phrases bandied about by the environmental movement. Because the terminology is so ill-defined, the U.S. Department of Labor doesn't keep any records on the growth of green-collar employment, explained Gary Steinberg, spokesman for the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
What Exactly Is a Green Job?
"Green-collar jobs are blue-collar jobs in the green space," said Marie Kerpan, founder of Green Careers, a career consulting firm specializing in employment in industries that promote environmental sustainability. Her definition, however, is less inclusive than most others. She excludes white-collar professionals like accountants and researchers, even if they work in green industries, though the ASES and others include these employees in their figures.
Despite the difficulties in defining what is and isn't a green-collar job, there is some consensus in broadly defined "green" employment categories. Kerpan lists energy efficiency, water consumption and filtration, transportation alternatives, green building and design, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy as job categories with strong potential for growth in the near future. "Those are the biggies," she said.
The Global Insight report, in describing environmental jobs, lists engineering, legal research and consulting as the largest employment sector of the green economy, with over 418,000 current workers. Other potentially green job categories include renewable energy, equipment manufacturing and sales, construction and systems installation, agriculture and forestry, and government administration.
Where the Green Jobs Are
Jobs in these areas will be all over the country, in rural areas, small towns and major cities. Some places, however, appear to be better positioned to reap the rewards of a green economy than others. Though Houston remains the oil capital of North America, for example, the city has been spotlighted as a potential green boomtown due to its existing energy infrastructure and know-how, as well as Texas' wind energy potential. The Dakotas, Kansas and Montana are also high on the list of states with enormous untapped wind energy potential.
Cities that have both large blue-collar workforces and solid academic research facilities are also expected to be green economy hotspots -- New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh lead the pack. And Washington, D.C., will need an army of government administrators and policy experts as it turns the country toward a more energy-efficient future.
Who's Getting Hired in a Green Economy?
But will all these green-collar jobs go to highly skilled professionals who already have ready access to job markets? No, say many analysts. An additional bonus to the green economy is that it will open doors for many low-skilled and entry-level employees. A 2007 report by the Berkeley, Calif., Office of Energy and Sustainable Development cites jobs like energy audits, solar installations, energy-efficiency retrofits and public transportation as opportunities that have low barriers to entry. And 86 percent of environmental companies in the report state their businesses are growing.
More hype? Perhaps. But the growing momentum behind the greening of the American workplace may be exemplified by an unusual partnership that has recently evolved. The Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers Union -- strange bedfellows, indeed -- sponsored a "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" conference in March 2008 in the shadow of Pittsburgh's smokestacks. If these two groups can find common ground, perhaps there's a real future for green jobs after all.