Experts may argue about what constitutes a "green job" or how many of them currently exist in the U.S. economy, but everyone seems to agree there will be many more of them in the coming decades.
Growing support for energy independence and a cleaner environment is driving a mix of market forces and legislative mandates toward renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.
Twenty-nine states have ordered their utilities to produce up to 30 percent of power through renewable energy in the next couple decades.
In addition, the federal economic stimulus plan earmarked more than $70 billion in direct spending, tax breaks and loan guarantees for the nation's energy economy, most of it for "green" energy.
More than $500 million of stimulus money for education is targeted for green job training.
In response, community colleges, vocational schools, universities, labor unions and nonprofits are gearing up to meet the challenge of training students for "green-collar" jobs.
"We want to be a reliable pipeline for manpower in that sector," says Mike Couling, president of Redstone College's Denver campus, which is emblematic of the current trend.
Redstone, a for-profit vocational school teaching aircraft maintenance since 1965, launched a degree in Wind Energy Technology last August.
The first of its 171 active students graduate in October.
The students, who range from "high-school grads to people on their third or fourth careers", as Couling puts it, spend 15 months on a mix of lectures and hands-on training with wind energy turbines and other equipment that includes a 225 kilowattVestaswind turbine.
Couling says Redstone spent two years developing its curriculum with input from wind turbine companies like Vestas, which provided "constant feedback and tweaking."
Industry forecaster IHS Global Insight, in a report prepared for the U.S. Mayors Conferenceestimates a potential for 4.2 million new green jobs over the next 30 years.
"The potential growth in green jobs is significant," the report concluded. "It could be the fastest growing segment of the U.S. economy over the next several decades and dramatically increase its share of total employment. "
What's a Green Job?
Much debate centers around the question of what constitutes a green job.
TheBureau of Labor Statistics is casting a wide net to find out; it is in the midst of gathering employment data on some 330 job classifications that range from a solar panel installers to a secretary at a recycling plant. BLS plans to publish its data in Spring 2012 and annually from then on.
The industry sector devoted to weatherization and energy efficiency alone will grow as much as fourfold in the next decade, to some 1.3 million people, according to aMarch 2010 report done by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and financed by the Department of Energy.
Though some may consider those jobs borderline, its clear others, such as those in renewable energy qualify.
"Whether counting direct, indirect, or induced jobs, determining what a green job is and calculating exactly how many of them there are is not an exact science," says Joan Fitzgerald, author of "Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development."
Even by the most conservative estimates, adds Fitzgerald, "we're talking about hundreds of thousands of new jobs — and maybe millions."
Solar, Wind Booming
In 2010, the Solar Foundation surveyed 2,500 solar employers and concluded that the industry now accounts for 93,000 direct solar jobs, says Seth Masia, deputy editor of the trade publication "Solar Today".
More than half of the employers surveyed said they'll hire during the coming year, to the tune of 24,000 new job, a 26-percent increase, adds Masia.
The U.S. workforce involved in wind power now stands at 75,000, with 20,000 manufacturing jobs added in 2010—a 36-percent increase, says Debra Preitkis-Jones, spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association.
Fourteen wind power manufacturing facilities came on line in 2010, and 23 more were announced, she says, since 38 states now have utility-scale wind installations and wind production.
Stimulus Funneled to Colleges
Much of the $500 million in stimulus money for green job training was directed to community colleges, which have responded by offering coursework and certification for a wide variety of green industries.
"From health care to computer technology, community colleges have always provided the needed skilled workforce," says Jerry Weber, president of the Community College of Lake County, Ill. "The emerging green economy is no different,"
More than 300 community colleges are now aligned with the SEED Center, Sustainable Education and Economic Development, which helps community colleges develop green job training programs. SEED offers its member colleges free curriculum resources, industry and employment information, case studies, faculty development, and funding. Among those offerings:
- Columbia Gorge Community College in Oregon launched a training course for wind energy technicians in 2006 and boasted a 92 percent placement rate, with graduates earning up to $24 an hour.
- More than 300 community college students in Oakland, Mich., are enrolled in renewable energies programs, where they refurbishing buildings and performing energy audits for small businesses.
- St. Philip's Community College in the San Antonio now offers an associate degree in . alternative energy.
- Lane Community College, in Eugene, Ore., is beginning a trial program that allows students to earn energy management degrees in fewer academic terms. Their tuition is subsidized as part of the federal stimulus funds for green courses and training, including a $2,500 tuition tax credit.
"The downturn in housing freed up a lot of carpenters and electricians who had a lot of the same skillsets needed for clean tech manufacturing and installation," says Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. "But they weren't familiar with clean technologies. So we worked directly with companies to design curriculum at the community college level. Initially, it was so successful that people didn't even complete the coursework before they were hired."
Masia, whose publication did a national survey of solar training programs says, "Over the past couple of years we've seen the emergence of sales courses, which teach design, estimating and sales skills to take students beyond the skilled-labor-on-a-roof stage.
"The bottom line is results, adds Masia. "Before committing, a prospective student should find out what the hire rate is among graduates, and talk to some graduates about their experiences. Also maybe talk to some potential employers and ask what schools they respect."
According to the "Clean Tech Job Trends 2010" report done by Portland-based Clean Edge, "The clean-energy sector is delivering new job and economic opportunities, as it moves from a once-marginalized niche to an increasingly cost-competitive, mainstream offering. Clean energy ... offers some of the largest growth opportunities on the global economic horizon."