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So What's A Green Job, Anyway?

Everyone’s talking about green-collar jobs, but defining what one is is a pretty grey issue.

“There’s no answer. We don’t really know what one is,” says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, a Web site that covers corporate and environmental practices. “It’s a big problem because there’s a lot at stake politically.”

Winemaker Greg Allen walks between floating solar panels on a pond behind the Far Niente winery in Oakville, Calif. The winery is trying out a new approach in the volts-for-vines tradeoff, saving vineyard space by floating solar panels on a pond that recycles water left over from the winemaking process. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Eric Risberg
Winemaker Greg Allen walks between floating solar panels on a pond behind the Far Niente winery in Oakville, Calif. The winery is trying out a new approach in the volts-for-vines tradeoff, saving vineyard space by floating solar panels on a pond that recycles water left over from the winemaking process. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

President Barack Obama’s New Energy for America plan would commit $150 billion for the creation of five million green jobs over the next ten years. But experts remain split on what makes a job a green one.

For instance, does a person who builds an SUV one week and a hybrid the next week at the same car plant have a green job? What about the truck driver who delivers solar panels, or the accountant who works at the office of a wind turbine producer?

Despite all the questions, there is some consensus about who will benefit from Obama's plan and that's workers with lower skill and education levels. Driving those types of jobs will be Obama's plan to overhaul federal buildings, schools and weatherize one million low-income homes a year. Those measures will be covered under the recently approved stimulus plan, with $500 million allocated to a green job training program.

“The jobs will require a low enough skill that they can train someone at a vocational school or a community college, or even in high school,” says George Hawkins, the director of the District Department of the Environment.

Much of the training is expected to take place at community colleges. “They're like the National Guard of education, they’re in every community,” says Makower. “That’s where it is likely to happen. It’s an existing infrastructure.”

Also getting into the game are non-profit organizations, which have begun training people for green-collar jobs. MillionTreesNYC, a partnership between the New York Restoration Project, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC initiative and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, started a seven-month training program in 2008. The program pays and trains individuals in urban greening, forestry, ecological restoration and landscape design according to Drew Becher, executive director of the New York Restoration Project.

Those skills are becoming increasing valuable as more large cities around the country continue to expand their green initiatives. Finding trained workers is a challenge. “We had an arborist job that paid $60,000 a year open for a year and a half because we couldn’t find anybody to fill it,” said Becher.

In Washington D.C. the District Department of Environment trains 14 to 21 year olds during the summer to maintain trees, parks, install watershed protection and learn about energy efficiency technologies.

Besides jobs on the lower level of the green ladder, jobs for more highly-educated workers are expected to pick up. In fact, while white-collar workers are mostly suit-wearing professionals, and blue-collar workers are doing manual labor, green-collar jobs will be a mix of the two and “actually bridge the gap," says Jen Boulden, cofounder of Ideal Bite, a service that emails readers daily green tips.

Green and sustainability courses have been taught at MBA programs across the country for years, but are getting more attention from students. The Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan have been giving MBA students a masters degree in sustainability for 15 years, but has seen the number of students in the program grow over the last five years, according to Rick Bunch the managing director of the institute. Over that time he has seen more students go on to work “at big companies.”

Many large companies have been changing their corporate strategy on environmental issues, opening up more jobs for highly educated green workers. “Every major company has some sort of corporate responsibility and sustainability program,” said Boulden.