Published on December 18th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans2
What color is your job? Historically, defining America’s work force has been quite simple—vocations were classified into one of two very distinct sectors: white-collar and blue-collar. Stereotypically, white-collar jobs are those requiring a college degree and the use of more "brains than brawn," while the hands-on laborers of manufacturing, building, and maintenance comprise the blue-collar work force.
Within the last 20 years, labor-related national discussion has focused on the marginalization of blue-collar jobs due to the outsourcing of work to other countries, where labor is less expensive and regulations less stringent. Simultaneously, discussions surrounding the economic, social, and environmental costs of our oil-based economy have risen to the forefront of hot topics for public debate. Out of this symbiotic combination of discussions has come a new and rising work forcet—the green collar worker.
The goals of green-collar employment attempt to address a plethora of national concerns, and can therefore seem somewhat far-reaching. Advocates of the green job industry strongly believe in the potential of green-collar employment to lift areas out of poverty, through a transition from an industrial blue to an environmental green economy. This transition is expected to have a resulting positive effect on the economic, environmental and energy security of our country. National newspapers report green collar business as "big money and booming," while politicians are currently building their political platforms around the transition. Including renewable energy and clean technology, "green" is the fifth largest market sector in the United States. The range of jobs and skill requirements is wide, but the potential employment impact is substantial: one recent analysis by Cleantech Venture Network, a green-oriented venture capitalist fund, estimated that as many as 500,000 green collar jobs could be created by 2010.
But what exactly is a green-collar job? It is the labor that produces environmentally-friendly products and services. Through her research, one urban environmental planning and policy expert has identified over twenty specific green job sectors including, but not limited to:
- Bicycle repair and bike delivery services
- Car and truck mechanic jobs
- Production jobs
- Gas-station jobs related to biodiesel
- Public transit jobs related to driving, maintenance, and repair
- Energy retrofits to increase energy efficiency and conservation
- Alternative energy equipment installation
- Manufacturing jobs related to large-scale production of appropriate technologies (i.e. solar panels, bike cargo systems, green waste bins, etc.)
- Materials reuse
- Printing with non-toxic inks and dyes
- Recycling and reuse
- Small businesses producing products from recycled materials
- Water retrofits to increase water efficiency and conservation
- Hazardous materials clean-up
- Green building
- Non-toxic household and commercial cleaning
- Whole home performance such as insulation and weatherization installation
- Green waste composting on a large scale
- Hauling and reuse of construction materials and debris (C&D)
- Tree cutting and pruning
- Peri-urban and urban agriculture
- Parks and open space expansion and maintenance
Pathways to Employment
Nationwide, U.S. partnerships oriented toward green urban-renewal plans and projects are being formed among government agencies at all levels (national, state and local). Recently, the federal government has taken action on two landmark decisions concerning the greening of America’s job force.
In early 2007, the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming welcomed experts on clean energy and job development to discuss the vast economic, environmental and energy security potential of a clean energy future for America. Afterward, Chairman Edward Markey (D-MA) stated, "Low-income communities are often the first to see pollution arrive, and the first to see good jobs leave. Our shared moral obligation to fight global warming and reduce oil dependence must include a commitment to job-creating clean energy solutions in our nation’s struggling communities." Markey’s press release, dated May 22, 2007, states that "currently, a large proportion of dirty power generation exists in low-income urban communities where problems in education, health, crime, employment, and affordable housing are endemic. Including these communities in the economic expansion promised by the green economy has the potential to bring large numbers of people out of poverty, while improving the environment and public health."
Congresswoman Solis from California, working with a local youth-violence prevention group, has introduced the Pathways Out of Poverty Act of 2007. "The goal of the program is to create “a sustainable, public program providing quality workforce training linked to good jobs that are created by federal renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives." As a leader of the local group states: "Urban youth, too often fodder for prisons, could instead be trained to create zero pollution products, heal the land and harvest the sun. Urban America can be put back to work, rebuilding our cities for the clean energy future."
As the nation shifts its focus to meet the goals of new green initiatives, obtaining green job skills is easier than ever with more colleges offering environmental studies programs and green MBAs. But research indicates that applying those skills in the private sector, away from the protective nest of government, isn’t always easy. With the ever-growing popularity of green jobs comes an ever-growing population of green job seekers, which has created a strong sense of competition in green-related fields. Also, some employers are skeptical of the level of specialization touted by programs marketed as having a green emphasis. From an employer’s perspective, sometimes green education can promote a narrow focus of interest that leaves recent graduates coveting a specific position, rather than simply a job in the green industry. Often the acquisition of a truly green job has more to do with luck, timing, and personal connections.
Urban youth, too often fodder for prisons, could instead be trained to create zero pollution products, heal the land and harvest the sun. Urban America can be put back to work, rebuilding our cities for the clean energy future.
Employers advise students to consider every job to be a sustainability job, and to reevaluate and reinvent their current position as such, rather than seeking out a new one. An employee of a large chemical company for example, can integrate environmentally sound methodologies into their daily routine and long-range goals, no matter how small the additions. Many of today’s corporate sustainability departments were formed after employees took the lead and did not, therefore, require additional education or training. Another negative impact of government programs from a business perspective is the potential economic cost (in the form of taxation) needed to subsidize these programs. Business owners contend that they must then absorb these costs or pass them on to their customers, rendering environmentally sound products and services more expensive and therefore, less attainable for the consumer.
While the debate on how to achieve the intended goals of the green job force will no doubt continue for years to come, the central question is no longer "Should we grow the economy or protect the environment?" With green collar jobs and green collar workers, we have the potential to do both.