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What Is a Green Job, Anyway?




Photo credit: Leaflet/Wikipedia

I’m a professional green jobs advocate.   On my way out the door every day, I tell whoever will listen that I’m going to work to stop global warming and create thousands of jobs.  So what are green jobs?

Since it’s a matter that very much concerns the next generation, I asked a young representative that I found sitting on my couch watching pre-season football.

Even with this important distraction, my 11-year-old son managed:  “It’s a job that helps the environment.”

Okay.  But what are some examples?

“I don’t know,” said the rep. “Planting trees?  Maintaining solar panels?”

That’s more information than the Bureau of Labor Statistics has to offer, although it is reportedly working on coming up with a green jobs measurement.  In the meantime, the Brookings Institute released a study that undertook the task of counting green economy jobs. They identified 2.7 million workers nationally in sectors they determined to be green:  waste management and treatment, public mass transit, green building materials and dozens of other sectors.  Since 2003, the green economy has added 500,000 jobs to the labor market.

The good news, according to the study, was that median wages in the clean economy were 13 percent higher than median US wages.  The vast majority of the jobs were in urban areas like L.A. and these jobs are export-intensive (meaning that they bring money in to the regions where they are located.)

This is what they said about L.A.:

The region added 26,785 green jobs between 2003 and 2010, a 5.2 percent annual growth rate, which is faster than the country as a whole.

The biggest absolute job growth was in waste management and treatment, which added about 6,000 jobs during this time.

The other segments that showed large job growth were:  public mass transit, organic food and farming, professional environmental services and green building materials.  Each of these segments added between 2,800 and 4,400 jobs over seven years.

Solar and wind showed large growth but from a very small base:  The study counted a total of 45 wind jobs and 200 solar thermal jobs.

Some of these jobs are no doubt very good ones.  But this is L.A., the capital of low wages and informal work.  So you know it’s got to be a mixed bag.  Think workers toiling on an organic farm, workers sorting our recycled garbage, or a residential construction worker who lack workers compensation, health insurance, overtime — you-name-it.  These are workers in the green economy.  But are they the kind of jobs we want for our kids?

And how does the green job creation address the jobs crisis we’re in now?  According to the Economic Policy Institute, the country is 11.5 million jobs shy of where we need to be in order to get to pre-recession employment levels.  Green jobs alone won’t be able to generate all that work.

Green jobs, admittedly, are not a substitute for reviving demand in an economy where consumers are running scared and banks won’t lend.  But just because they are not EVERYTHING it doesn’t mean we throw the green jobs baby out with the green jobs bathwater – as some would have it.  The interest in green represents an opportunity to focus us on building the kind of economy we want to see: one with middle class jobs (including manufacturing jobs), one where businesses (and consumers) behave responsibly – i.e. not like a bunch of college students on a Spring Break bender, and one that fosters innovation and creativity.

On that last point, I’d rather our best and brightest get to work figuring out how to store energy generated by wind and solar—or on another brain teaser with a social purpose—than on the next sandbox video game that will suck in my 11-year-old and seemingly never spit him out.  But that’s surely another blog post.

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