The Truth About All Those Green Jobs

Millions of new energy jobs? Perhaps, but the estimates may be a bit too rosy.

A rainbow is visible looking West from Palm Springs, Calif. on Monday, Jan. 28, 2008 next to an array of wind turbines.

A rainbow next to an array of wind turbines in Palm Springs, Calif.

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Strange bedfellows. The prospect of green work has also gained favor with folks who could never be mistaken for tree-huggers. At a recent Good Jobs Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C., steelworkers sat side by side with Sierra Club members. They together cheered for both the Teamsters' James Hoffa and for Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Labor unions and environmental advocacy groups haven't always gotten along so well, but the unions have come to see how advantageous a green movement could be for organized labor as it looks for new members. After all, a commercial-scale wind turbine has more than 8,000 parts and uses an amount of steel equivalent to 225 midsize cars.

Green work also draws all kinds of plucky entrepreneurs. Take Paul Revans, who runs his own energy consulting business in Westchester, N.Y. Revans became interested in solar energy about three years ago and tracked down training courses in solar water heating and photovoltaic solar electrical systems. He gave up his nights and weekends for classes. "I went into it because I think people need to become more energy independent and take stress off the energy grid to avoid blackouts," Revans says. "People have these roofs on their homes that aren't doing anything. You might as well put that space to work for you."

There is pent-up demand for training and education. At the Bronx Community College's Center for Sustainable Energy, where Revans did some of his solar training, PV installation courses are packed. "We can't run them enough," says Tria Case, the center's executive director. Certification courses are also selling out. The trick to training, however, is making sure there's a market for the skills people are paying to learn. Revans still spends most of his time on traditional energy, in part, he suspects, because most consumers don't know about the tax incentives to defray the cost of putting in solar energy systems.

Andrew Pike, a senior at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., recently drove 2½ hours to Washington for a daylong green jobs expo in search of the kind of work that would relate to his environmental policy studies. His immediate hopes for finding more advanced green work, however, are starting to give way to the sense that his degree might mostly pay off in the long term. "It seems like a lot of boots-on-the-ground jobs right now," Pike says.

Pike isn't the only one who feels that way. In fact, most studies on the workforce impact of green investment come to the same conclusion: There would be plenty of entry-level, "green-collar" work. The authors of a recent study commissioned by groups that include the Sierra Club and the Teamsters tested the assumption that green jobs would be high paying and found that "it is not always valid." Wages at many wind and solar manufacturing facilities were below the national average for workers manufacturing durable goods, the report found. Pollin's research concludes that the average annual total compensation for jobs from green investment is $52,000, or about 20 percent less than the $65,000 average for the oil industry.

Still, Pollin suggests that green investment in building retrofits, public transit, and upgrading the electrical grid would put back to work many of the roughly 1 million construction workers who have lost their jobs since the housing collapse. And the promise of such abundant, entry-level jobs is a positive for people like green jobs advocate Van Jones, who champions them as a provider of "pathways out of poverty."

Organized labor, of course, wants green jobs to be union ones. "If it doesn't put green in working people's pockets, it's not a green-collar job," says Terence O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "If it doesn't ensure workers get respect, receive good benefits, and have the freedom to choose to join a union, it's not a green-collar job." Some might argue that unionizing green workers could dampen the number of jobs created, but Pollin says existing research comparing union wages with nonunion wages suggests the effect likely would not be significant.