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Just What Is a Green Job Anyway?

  Green jobs are a hot topic in an era of high unemployment. But defining exactly what green jobs are, how they  can be created, and how they benefit the economy and environment presents quite a challenge. The Obama administration made green jobs an early focus and set a goal of creating some 5 million...

The majority of green jobs are in manufacturing, which can make them tougher to pinpoint. Photo: Robert Scoble, Flickr Creative Commons


Green jobs are a hot topic in an era of high unemployment. But defining exactly what green jobs are, how they  can be created, and how they benefit the economy and environment presents quite a challenge.

The Obama administration made green jobs an early focus and set a goal of creating some 5 million of them during this decade. To that end nearly $100 billion was earmarked for the green economy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

In March the U.S Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released a long-awaited study attempting to quantify just how many green jobs now exist. The report estimated that some 3.1 million Americans hold green jobs. Those jobs comprise almost 2.5 percent of the country’s total employment, according to the report, which found California tops in the total number of green jobs (338,400) and Vermont with the highest green job percentage at 4.4 percent. Manufacturing accounts for the lion’s share of today’s green jobs, more than 462,000 of the 3.1 million total, according to the BLS.

BLS standards also tried to define the tricky term itself, suggesting that in general “green jobs” typically fit into one of two categories. The first group includes “jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.” This means all the jobs at a solar panel plant are green jobs. The second sector includes “jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.” So someone making energy improvements at a factory, even one that produces diesel trucks, would qualify.

The BLS grouped green jobs into categories that include renewable energy production (like wind and solar), products or services that boost energy efficiency (including appliances, cars, and buildings), pollution reduction and recycling, conservation of natural resources, environmental compliance, and education.

But critics have leveled broadsides at some of these green jobs claims, seizing on the inclusion of positions like garbage collector and city bus driver that may not seem so green at first blush and are longstanding positions in any event.  And is a secretary at a nuclear power plant really “greener” than a secretary at a furniture factory?

Scholars at the Heritage Foundation took issue with the notion that government subsidies and spending are helping to create large numbers of new green jobs, according to a report by David Kreutzer,

For example, “The largest green jobs providers in manufacturing are steel mills (43,658 jobs),” Kreutzer writes. “Over 50 percent of all steel mill jobs are green. This high fraction of greenness is driven by the industry’s reliance on scrap steel for the majority of its inputs, not by the greenness of the goods produced with the steel. The trend toward greater use of scrap steel is decades-long and is not the result of any green jobs initiatives.”

Kreutzer also questioned the extent of green jobs in renewable energy, as described in the BLS report.

“The electric power generation industry has 44,152 green jobs,” Kreutzer wrote. “This may seem like a lot, but only 4,700 are in renewable power generation, including 2,200 in wind, 1,100 in biomass, 600 in geothermal, and only 400 in solar. Though these totals do not include jobs in the manufacture or installation of these power sources, they pale to the equivalent green jobs count in nuclear (35,755), which accounts for over 80 percent of all green jobs in electric power generation.”

Since no new U.S. nuclear plants have been built in 30 years, Kreutzer added, none of the nuclear industry’s green jobs can be the result of any green subsidies or policies. And, of course, the failure of government-subsidized solar panel maker Solyndra has led some to suggest that supporting such industries isn’t the best use of taxpayer funds with job creation at a premium.

Dave Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to the green economy, disagrees. Foster describes a very successful public-private partnership in creating new green jobs. “The government role has been proven across a whole variety of sectors,” he said, “like construction, energy, and service industries.

“We assessed the Recovery Act programs at their two-year anniversary and demonstrated that they have done two really important things. They’ve created or saved almost a million jobs. And, of equal import, they have leveraged private investment back into the economy at the rate of 3 dollars of private investment to every dollar of government grants or tax breaks or other incentives. So green jobs don’t exist only because of government subsidies. In fact the subsidies encourage private investment at a very high rate.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics report didn’t attempt to track how many green jobs are new and have been created by programs under the Obama administration. It did report that 2.3 million were in the private sector, while some 860,000 were public jobs.

How Green Is My Economy?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers were reasonably close to the findings of a similar study, “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment,” done by the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

“Without a lot of fanfare, the solid Labor Department count demonstrates once and for all something important: that the ‘green’ or ‘clean’ economy exists; that we can define it; that in fact we can count its jobs and measure it and track its progress,” Brookings analyst Mark Muro wrote.

Muro called green jobs “a modest-sized, manufacturing-oriented, unavoidable piece of America’s next economy.” His team’s Brookings Institute study reported that most green jobs are in already-mature segments like manufacturing or public services including wastewater and mass transit. A smaller piece of the pie includes newer green energy ventures like solar, wind, and smart grid endeavors—but in recent years these sectors have been adding jobs at rates that far outstrip national averages.

The Brookings study also found that the clean economy has median wages 13 percent higher than average U.S. figures, and that the industry offers better opportunities for low to middle-skilled employees than the economy at large.

And Muro’s group charted where green jobs are found. The report reveals that most (64 percent) are in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas and that, regionally, the South and West are hotbeds for green job hunters.

How much can growing green sectors really drive future growth? That remains to be seen. But advocates, like BlueGreen Alliance’s Dave Foster, say they’ve already come a long way.

“When I first became focused on this work 10 years ago a lot of people thought the green economy was far off in the future and made up of jobs and of skills that hadn’t been invented yet,” said BlueGreen Alliance’s Foster. “It was a hypothetical economy. But today 2.5 or 3 million people are employed in what we define as the green economy. We’ve demonstrated that it’s real and it cuts across all traditional job skills.”

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Meet the Author

Brian Handwerk
Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.