The True Color of “Green-Collar” Jobs

Press wrestles with definition and economic reality

When John Edwards bowed out of the Democratic primary in January, the presidential race lost its most vocal supporter of so called green-collar jobs. His former opponents have carried the mantle forward, however-Senator Hillary Clinton in particular, who introduced an amendment to the 2007 energy bill, calling for green-collar job training.

“Green-collar” is a relatively new title. A few articles have claimed that the first usage was during congressional hearings in the 1970s. In 1991, The New York Times quoted a New York City Commissioner who complained about “green-collar fraud,” referring to companies hawking bogus environmentally-friendly products.

The term took firm root in 1999, when Alan Thein Durning wrote a book called Green Collar Jobs. But then, silence. Not until around 2006 did a handful of green-collar stories really start to pop up again, giving way to a torrent in 2007 and 2008. The press had already developed a case of green fever, showing a particular affinity for “green business” stories. Slowly, and with candidates dropping the term so often, reporters’ attention has moved down the managerial ladder, to environmentally-friendly employment.

Stories like Karen Breslau’s Newsweek piece about the growth in the green-collar job market have sprouted all over the media, adopting a variety of angles. Even local papers are digging in; last week, The Connecticut Post published an interesting piece by its Money editor, Pam Dawkins, arguing that one strength of green jobs is that they “can’t be outsourced.” On Sunday, The Mercury News in San Jose, California, published an op-ed written by a local high school teacher urging readers, “Let’s prepare valley kids to ride wave of green-collar jobs.”

If there is still any doubt that environmentally-friendly employment is a hot topic, the two remaining Democratic candidates should have laid it to rest with frequent promises that they will create five million green-collar jobs over ten years to assuage the nation’s economic and environmental woes. Last week, Clinton gave the nod to Earth Day and green jobs in her victory speech after the Pennsylvania primary.

This is all great news - we will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless we pay more attention to human capital in the new “green business” economy. As we’ve seen with other elements of the environmental revolution, however, there is plenty of fluff and a lot of explanation that needs to go along with lofty goals and propositions.

For starters, what is a green-collar job, exactly? The guy who installs solar panels for a living is safely in green-collar territory, but what about the engineer working at Chevron who spends half of his time on traditional, fossil-fuel energy sources and half of his time on renewables? How about the day-rate construction worker pouring concrete for a windmill farm-whose next gig is fixing the shoddy construction in Boston’s Big Dig? What about the workforce at an ethanol plant? Have those once green collars turned back to blue?

We can’t have an intelligent conversation about something if we don’t know what it is, but it might take a while to iron out the definition of a “green job.” In the meantime, it makes sense for journalists to report the lack of consensus. A good example was a New York Times article by Steven Greenhouse in March headlined, “Millions of Jobs of a Different Collar”. Greenhouse quotes three sources, with three different definitions:

• “A green-collar job is in essence a blue-collar job that has been upgraded to address the environmental challenges of our country.” [Lucy Blake, chief executive of the Apollo Alliance]

• “A green job has to do something useful for people, and it has to be helpful to, or at least not damaging to, the environment.” [Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club]

• “Ten years ago, that steel was used for making low-efficiency automobiles, so those jobs were part of the dirty economy […] But now that steel is being used to build wind turbines. So now you can call them green jobs.” [Dave Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance]

Keith Johnson, at The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital blog, noted the same discrepancy, coming to the conclusion that “in a nutshell: ‘green-collar jobs’ can run the gamut from park rangers to Prius mechanics to physicists fiddling with nano photovoltaic research.”

Assuming that reporters can come to grips with broad, but nuanced definitions, the next big question for the jamboree is how green jobs will actually affect the economy. To what degree will they replace blue-collar jobs that are expected to be lost in the transition away from a fossil-fuel economy? Can mid-career, blue-collar workers get the training, skills, and resources needed to make the switch to a green profession? Will any of these scenarios even put a dent in the U.S.’s economic turmoil? These questions will be even more difficult to answer than the problem of defining green-collar jobs, but a few journalists and academics have already begun the search.

Notably, rival radio news producers National Public Radio and Public Radio International have both done an admirable job of covering the political optimism behind green jobs and economic growth, as well as some of the pessimism - but hard numbers are rare in such reports.

To that end, Raquel Pinderhughes at San Francisco State University recently completed a study where she interviewed business owners around Berkeley in order gauge the green-collar market’s ability to “provide workers with limited skills with good jobs that can lift them out of poverty.” She found that out of more than twenty green businesses, 86 percent hire workers with no previous direct experience, and 94 percent provide on-the-job training for employees in entry-level positions. It is, admittedly, a small sample size from an area that already has a predisposition for green; nonetheless, the study is a step in the right direction.

Brita Belli, at E: The Environmental Magazine, took a crack at these questions, too, with her cover story, “Welcome to Green-Collar America.” She doesn’t nail the coverage, but she does give readers a quantitative idea of what’s going on with green employment:

The ten Midwestern states, ideally suited for wind energy development, could see nearly 37,000 new jobs by 2020, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, if the nation’s renewable energy portfolio were set to twenty-two percent.

The problem is that 37,000 jobs over twelve years will barely make a dent in the number of blue-collar jobs that are being lost. The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in March alone, 48,000 manufacturing and 51,000 construction jobs were lost. E&E Publishing’s recently launched ClimateWire has done a particularly good job of parsing these statistics, especially in light of the presidential campaigns, but this is the kind of comparison more news outlets need to make.

During a contentious election season in which the candidates are relying heavily on viral buzzwords like “green jobs,” it’s all the more important for the press to parse the sound bites. Five million new jobs sounds great in a speech-especially to workers in ailing economies like those in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana-but it’s a disservice to the reader if there isn’t sufficient analysis of how such virescent promises may actually hold up.

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Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.