People are confused about green jobs

May 16, 2009

Jim Cassio’s speech at the Richmond Green Expo on May 14, 2009

green_jobsFor all the talk about green jobs, it’s interesting that we don’t have much agreement on what a green job is, or how to define them.

I’ve noticed that most people tend to have a narrow view of green jobs, usually based on what industries or occupations they’re most familiar with. Few people have an inclusive view of green jobs. It reminds me of the story about the blind men who each feel a part of an elephant and then come to believe that they know what an elephant is. But, of course, their interpretations are all limited by not being able to see or feel all the parts of the elephant. Our interpretations and definitions of green jobs seem to have those same limitations.

And those who use the term “green collar jobs” are even more inclined to define them narrowly – often by suggesting that they are skilled trade jobs that don’t require a college degree. And that may be nifty for workforce development purposes, but it adds to the confusion.

Does that mean that the jobs of environmental scientists, which may have been our original green job, are no longer considered green? At this point people have no idea if green jobs and green collar jobs are the same thing or not.

Many people, including the media, like to use the term, “the green industry.” But when we say “the green industry,” are we actually referencing an industry? If so, what industry, exactly?

Are we talking about the industry that represents lawn care professionals – which they call “the green industry?”

Are we talking about the industry that represents landscaping contractors – which they call “the green industry?”

Or are we talking about the industry that represents horticulturists – which many of them call “the green industry?”

Of course not. In 2009, in the context of green jobs, when someone says “the green industry,” it’s a reference to “where the green jobs are,” but an ambiguous reference that doesn’t actually suggest any specific industries. Or, at best, it may be used as an umbrella term for renewable energy and energy efficiency. But, while these are two very important slices of the green jobs pie, this is also a pie with many slices – not just one or two.

So, obviously, people are confused about green jobs.

Another thing people are confused about is why they can’t find more evidence of green jobs in the job market. Many people are asking if the green jobs they hear so much about aren’t a bunch of hype? – since they can’t find them among the job ads. Well, there’s a couple of problems here:

First, this is the toughest job market since the great depression and green jobs are not the silver bullet. At least not yet. We’ve lost 5 million jobs since December 2007 and that includes green jobs.

Others wonder why the nearly $800 billion in economic stimulus spending hasn’t created some green jobs that we can see? The problem there is that, for the most part, the money is still in the pipeline and to-date has created very few jobs. But I certainly expect to see some of those newly created jobs in the not-too-distant future. By the end of the year would be a reasonable guess.

But the other problem is that green jobs are difficult to identify:

Number one, their job titles don’t include the word “Green.”

Number two, their job titles don’t usually indicate the relationship of the job to the environment.

You might get lucky once in a while with a descriptive job title, but for the most part, you need to look beneath the surface, and beyond the titles, to see if the job reflects green values. If so, then it’s probably a green job. Or at least somewhat green.

But what are those green values? Well, there are many possibilities, but here is a short list of core values that can help us identify most green jobs:
Energy efficiency
Green building
Sustainable design
Environmental protection and preservation
Organic and recycled products
Renewable energy
Sustainable business practices, including cleantech

But what about sustainable organizations and green businesses? – and I do mean those who are truly committed to sustainability? Is the executive director of the Sierra Club working in a green job? Of course. But what about his/her personal assistant? If not, how do we draw the line between the green jobs and the non-green jobs when they’re both of the same green organization and both working toward the same goals? The answer, in my opinion, is that we have to consider all the jobs to be green jobs when the employer is genuinely committed to sustainability or green values.

So in my view, we have two ways of determining whether a job is a green job: either by looking at the nature and purpose of the job itself, or by looking at whether the employer is committed to sustainability. This is an inclusive view of green jobs. Not because I want to impress anyone with green job statistics, but because the real goal here is to have as many people as possible, including workers and organizations, working to reduce our carbon emissions and to better preserve and protect our environment and our planet. And we want to do this for our children, and for our children’s children, and for their children.

So how do we achieve that goal? By creating as many green jobs as our economy can handle; by turning regular jobs green, or as green as they can be; and by having as many organizations as possible on a path to sustainability.

So where are today’s green jobs? They are found in virtually all industries and across all sectors. Here is a sampling of private sector industries where we can find green jobs:
Agriculture and food related industries – sustainable and organic ag.
Alternative fuel vehicles and related industries
Alternative fuels, including bio fuels
Bicycle related industries
Biotech and life sciences
Cleaning and janitorial services, when specializing in green cleaning
Clothing and accessories –the part of it using organic and recycled material
Green building, sustainable design, energy efficiency industries
Ecotourism
Environmental services
Landscaping and habitat restoration services
Legal services, primarily environmental regulatory and land use law
Manufacturing and technology industries – when committed to cleantech
Pesticide services, when using natural and organic pesticides
Printing and publishing industries – those who are committed to sustainability
Recycling and salvage industries, those who are green
Renewable energy industries – includes solar, wind, hydropower, geothermal, tidal energy, and photosynthetic energy from biomass
Socially responsible investing (SRI) services
Transportation – public
Utilities – electric and water

And, of course, we can find green jobs in many non-profit organizations and in many government agencies – federal agencies, state agencies, cities, counties and special districts.

So how many green jobs are there? I would estimate that we have about 9-12 million green jobs out of 150 million total jobs in the U.S. That’s 6% to 8% of the pie, overall. However, we don’t know for sure because our government doesn’t have statistics on green jobs. They have data at the occupational level and at the industry level. For example, they can tell you how many biochemists there are in a geographic area, but they can’t tell you how many of those biochemists are working in green jobs and how many aren’t. They can tell you how many jobs there are in the publishing industry in a geographic area, but they can’t tell you how many of those jobs are green, or how many of those employers are green.

So that leaves us at the mercy of the independent studies that have been done. And some of them are quite good. Of course, some are quite bad, including those on both sides of the playing field. All independent studies have a funding source, and one needs to consider the agenda and biases that may be driving the studies’ conclusions.

What types of occupations lead to green jobs? A wide variety. Basically, most occupations can lead to a green career – as well as to a non-green career. It’s a matter of degree, occupation by occupation, as some, like horses, are more likely to lead you to water. The spectrum includes:
Engineering and mechanical careers
Environmental health and safety, and regulatory careers
Green building, sustainable design and energy efficiency careers
Green business and enterprising careers
Natural and land resource management careers
Natural sciences and physical geography careers
Sustainable and organic agriculture careers

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4 Responses to “People are confused about green jobs”

  1. Thanks Jim for being one of the catalysts in getting the green economy.

    Love your new book.

  2. Jane Sullivan said

    Jim,
    This is great! Thank you for examining the ways that ‘green’ has taken over the lexicon and helping us try to see the differences between greenwash and jobs/careers/directions/companies that are really interested from a sense of we better fix this climate before it’s too late standpoint!

  3. jimcassio said

    This message is from Elizabeth M. Madison, Vice President of NADAP in New York, NY. It is included here with her permission:

    Your article about the confusion people are experiencing about green jobs was very helpful. It provided a broader definition for ‘green jobs’, which is truly such a nebulous term. NADAP, a private, non-profit that provides employment services to individuals with barriers to employment, also provides professional development workshops to workforce development organizations. We have received many inquiries about this topic; I am glad I can now provide them a resource.

  4. Don’t forget one of the largest sectors of the green job market. It is a full time job to make sure that a business isn’t dumping the wrong thing down the drain, up a pipe or even in the wrong landfill. These people are ussually refered to as Environmenal Health and Safety (EHS) specialist. Just about every factory has one, and these are ussuallythe people who do things like cleaner production or sustainability. I would estimate this sector of the green job market is one of the largest in the environmental profession. Utilities is probably the largest.

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