It's no wonder that the "green jobs" chant has become a chorus. What's not to like about the prospect of millions of newly created and hard-to-outsource positions? Particularly if they are filled by people hard at work designing and building and installing the very equipment that will overhaul the nation's energy habit—replacing, or at least diminishing, the nation's addiction to oil with plentiful, renewable, made-in-America energy. This idyllic vision is being trumpeted in newly Democratic Washington. As President Obama, who is planning to create 5 million jobs with a $150 billion investment, puts it, "A green, renewable-energy economy isn't some pie-in-the-sky, far-off future. It is now. It is creating jobs now."
As good as it sounds, just how real is the promise of all these green jobs? Sapped by the recession and collapsing oil prices, the fledgling green movement needs big government support to snap back in the short term. Because green energy is labor intensive, it promises many jobs, but a successful national shift from fossil fuels would mean pain for the 3.5 million whose jobs are tied to the traditional energy industry. Also, higher energy costs could threaten the payrolls of energy-intensive companies, particularly manufacturers.
For now, the massive stimulus bill has boosted the short-term fortunes of green energy. It puts $70 billion toward green initiatives—retrofitting buildings to slash their appetite for energy, upgrading public transit systems, and building an electrical grid that can better integrate renewable energy. The stimulus also demonstrates a key shift in public attitudes toward the green agenda, says Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a leading researcher on green jobs. "It's the first time the notion that investment in a clean-energy economy is connected officially in government policy with the idea of job creation," Pollin says.
The recession has stunted the green growth spurt, as financing has slowed for wind projects and solar firms have laid off workers, but industry proponents and business people are focused on Washington. "I am very optimistic," says Andrei Guschin, a biofuels researcher who cofounded an algae technology firm in 2006. "A big chunk of this optimism comes from the new administration."
Green industries are heavily reliant on manpower, an aspect that makes them especially alluring when it comes to government-led job creation. Pollin's research at the Political Economy Research Institute, commissioned by the liberal Center for American Progress, estimates that $100 billion in green investment would create 2 million jobs, while $100 billion handed out to households (as in the 2008 stimulus package) would create 1.7 million jobs, and $100 billion spent on the oil industry would create only 542,000 jobs.
Despite the political rhetoric about green jobs, many people still aren't completely sure what those jobs are. Broadly, they include everything from scientists and engineers devising technological breakthroughs to people building wind turbines and installing solar panels. A national movement toward energy efficiency would include such labor-intensive work as retrofitting buildings, which puts roofers, insulation installers, and carpenters to work on existing structures. Improving the nation's mass transit system would require welders and civil engineers and dispatchers.
The bulk of those jobs are clearly blue-collar. Skeptics charge that the green movement will create jobs with lower wages than the fossil fuel industry positions they're replacing. Labor unions already are angling for a hand in the green workforce, promising to lift pay.
Of course, a secretary at a solar company could also be considered to be working in a green job. "Sometimes, I think the discussion of green jobs focuses on niches—the green economy as a niche or addition to the regular economy," says K.C. Golden, policy director for the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Climate Solutions and coauthor of the book Green Jobs: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Employment. "I think of it as a greening of the economy at large. A lot of these jobs are going to be in existing sectors. We are going to need a dramatic move away from fossil fuels."
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.
Not everyone is persuaded by Obama's estimate of 5 million green jobs in 10 years. That is, in a word, "absurd," says Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. "We can't devote that many people to that activity in this economy without incurring very substantial costs, unbearable costs."
Quantity debate. David Kreutzer of the conservative Heritage Foundation sees flaws in rosy estimates of green jobs. The taxation or borrowing necessary to raise the billions for green investment, he says, will squeeze out or destroy other jobs.
Conservative economists seem most concerned about some of the mechanisms that might be used to force existing industries to go green, such as tighter emissions limits. A Heritage study on a bill in the Senate last year that would have limited carbon emissions concluded there would be significant net job losses. The more energy-intensive sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, would get hit the most. "In our modern economy, we're using fossil fuel to replace human sweat and to run the electricity that undergirds virtually everything," Kreutzer says. "The part of the economy that's going to be hit the hardest will be the electricity generation, because that's done with coal. If you look at fossil fuels, coal has the most carbon dioxide per Btu [British thermal unit]. So, if you put a tax on carbon dioxide, it's going to be felt the most by the electricity industry. Some of those costs get passed on; there's no other way." Higher costs for electricity consumption mean cuts elsewhere—like payrolls.
The debate over green jobs comes down to, in part, a philosophical one over whether the government should lead the march toward renewables or let the free market lead itself as green energy becomes an economically viable alternative to traditional sources. For environmental advocates, however, the real case for a green economy is found in the forbidding forms of global warming, damaged ecosystems, air pollution, and finite resources.
As he nears graduation, Andrew Pike envisions a different world in a decade or so. "It's the long-term view that's going to take time," he says. "I think it will keep growing as people realize that resources, fossil fuels, aren't going to last forever—once people realize what we're doing can't be undone."