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Welcome to Green Collar America

Apr 02, 2009 12:28PM


by Brita Belli

Yes, the traditional American economic picture is bleak, with every major sector—retail, banking, automotive and construction—reporting record job losses.

Twenty-two of the 30 companies comprising the Dow Jones industrial average have reported job losses since the economy began crumbling in October 2008, including industries that many experts thought were strong enough to weather the storm; even construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar announced 20,000 jobs would be cut on January 27, and pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced 8,000 job cuts the same day. That month, the nationwide unemployment rate reached 7.6 percent, its highest level since the 1980s recession.

But, the previously nascent green economy is taking shape, bringing with it the promise of new jobs.

Among these will be well-paying manufacturing jobs; management and sales opportunities with huge growth potential; and abundant niche positions for enterprising students and others seeking alternative careers. On the upper tiers of the economic ladder, many CEOs and CFOs are already jumping into green jobs. Online green job directories are heavy with listings for those with pertinent business experience.

Government Stimulus To jumpstart this new green economy, much hope rests upon the economic stimulus package called the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan,” which President Obama signed into law in February 2009, and with the business expansion and job creation that legislation promises. By directing federal money to infrastructure building and clean energy, President Obama’s administration has pledged to use the $787 billion authorized in the bill to rebuild the American economy and with it, the struggling middle class.

The ambitious goal of that legislation is the creation of 3.5 million new jobs, some of which will directly contribute to the country’s renewable energy future. The idea is that the stimulus package can solve two problems simultaneously: getting Americans the dependable, well-paying work that will allow them to support their families and stay in their homes; and redirecting the U.S. energy picture away from dirty, polluting fossil fuels like oil and coal and into clean, renewable energies like wind and solar.

“This is a green and bold stimulus package that will help our economy and protect our environment,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, who chairs key energy and global warming panels in the House.

By adding critical job training skills to reach those in greatest need—inner-city kids, former inmates and welfare recipients among them—Van Jones, founder and president of Green For All, believes the federal economic stimulus effort can go even further—to fight poverty and pollution, simultaneously. His nonprofit advocacy organization is dedicated to building an all-inclusive, green economy.

“There’s this whole invisible infrastructure, trying to get people who need jobs connected with work,” says Jones, who also authored The New York Times 2008 bestselling book, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Solve Our Two Biggest Problems. “There are vocational training centers, return-from-prison work centers and community colleges. But none of that infrastructure is pointed at the green economy.” He’s out to change that.

The stimulus package responds by including language from the Green Jobs Act of 2007, part of that year’s larger Energy Savings Act. It includes $100 million for worker training in upgrading the nation’s electrical grid, and up to $500 million for renewable energy and electric power transmission projects, with provisions that all laborers and mechanics are paid fair wages. Another $750 million is designated for competitive grants for “worker training and placement in high growth and emerging energy sectors.” Some $250 million is directed toward building Job Corps Centers around the country, which the legislation notes “may include training for careers in the energy efficiency, renewable energy and environmental protection industries.”

On a larger scale, $16.8 billion of the federal package is directed toward energy efficiency and renewable energy research and projects that include: advanced batteries to power plug-in, hybrid vehicles; geothermal and biomass projects; wind and solar installations; building weatherization; modernizing the electrical grid; and environmental cleanup.

A February 2009 report by Good Jobs First, a smart growth advocacy group, cautions that, in the rush to create a quantity of jobs, it’s crucial that we pay sufficient attention to the quality of those jobs.

Private Sector Progress In its State of Green Business 2009, Greener World Media asks the tough questions that must be addressed. Are we moving far enough, fast enough? Do current initiatives represent true transformation? Or, are we just nibbling at the edges of national and global problems?

Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of Greener World Media and the editors of its flagship, see optimistic signs that the shift to a green economy is real. For example, green building is on the rise, spurring new technologies that save energy and money, while creating more healthful workplaces. The automobile industry seems finally engaged in a green race to introduce electric vehicles.

Leading makers and retailers of consumer products are starting to more rigorously assess the environmental impacts of their products and signaling suppliers that tomorrow’s goods must hew to higher levels of environmental responsibility.

Building on the possibility offered by such public and private investment, along with the promise of a true, “green collar,” workforce, government officials joined with thousands of labor, environmental and business advocates in Washington, D.C., February 4 to 6, for the Good Jobs Green Jobs National Conference and public expo, dedicated to exploring emerging green-oriented career paths. It was sponsored by the Blue Green Alliance, an unprecedented national partnership formed in 2006 between the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers Union.

Kevin Doyle, president of green consulting and training company Green Economy, advises that the government’s initial investment is only meant to be a launch pad. “The federal government serves best as an innovative leader,” he counsels. “Money from the private sector should be at least five times that much.”

Green on Top “CEOs and senior level executives across a broad spectrum are entering the environmental field in droves,” says Rona Fried, founder and president of, which includes a “Green Dream Jobs” online directory. Corporations need strong communicators as they build environmental strategy into their policy, partner with nonprofits and work to respond more quickly to rising public concern over environmental issues.

“Many companies have environmental managers, who are now being upgraded in terms of status,” says Dan Esty, co-director of the Center for Business and Environment at Yale University, and co-author of Green to Gold: How Smart Companies Use Environmental Strategy to Innovate, Create Value and Build Competitive Advantage. “To be a successful manager, you need good analytical skills, to understand the environment in a business context—as a core business strategy.”

The 300 largest corporations are now in the initial stages of crafting a new social frontier, writes author Bruce Piasecki, in World Inc. “Business first seeks to sustain and further itself,” he notes from his perch as president and founder of his consulting firm, American Hazard Control Group, “but this revolution has the side benefit of being good for us all.” Turning Blue and White Collars Green The 10 Midwestern states perhaps suffering most from the disintegration of the country’s traditional middle class are ideally suited for wind energy development. According to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, they could jointly realize nearly 37,000 new jobs by 2020 if the nation’s renewable energy portfolio were set to 22 percent.

A University of California at Berkeley study update in 2006, “Putting Renewables to Work: How Many Jobs Can the Clean Energy Industry Generate?” projects that the renewable energy industry could consistently produce more jobs per megawatt of electricity generated—in construction, manufacturing, installation, operations and management and fuel processing—than its fossil fuel industry counterpart. Given a 20 percent national renewable energy standard that includes 55 percent wind energy, that could equal 188,018 new jobs by 2020.

Kate Gordon, co-director for the Apollo Alliance, a nonprofit working for American energy independence, summarizes the point. “There’s been a wholesale loss of manufacturing jobs, which are union-protected, highly skilled jobs. But with wind turbines, solar panels, energy-efficient retrofits—there’s a whole world of green jobs. It’s pretty exciting, if you can harness it.”

Doyle advises that there are two key strategies. One is to look at what skills are needed by all industries to solve environmental problems. All need, for example, information management and financing. “So much starts with gathering huge amounts of data,” Doyle says. This includes jobs in information technology, geography and statistics.

Similarly, whether a nonprofit, government agency or business is looking to purchase open space or evaluating smart growth versus sprawl, they need to find funds. This opens up a host of jobs, including sector analysts, green accountants, government finance officers and foundation managers.

The second strategy for green job seekers is to, “Pick a niche without any sense of ideological blinders,” advises Doyle. Someone wanting to “fix” climate change would investigate the major sources of carbon emissions—power plants, automobiles and gas flares—and focus on finding solutions within these polluting industries.

Perhaps the report at summarizes it best: “To achieve their increasingly ambitious environmental goals, companies will need to educate, engage, empower and activate their employees to think and act green. And, learn from them, too, recognizing that when it comes to running a leaner, greener business, no one knows where the waste and inefficiencies lie more than those on the front lines. Despite all the oft-repeated dictums about ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ management techniques, effectively greening the corporation sometimes requires that companies learn how to lead from the middle.”

Brita Belli is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine.

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