Green jobs' promise, pitfalls

Looking Forward

April 02, 2009|By Yoni Levinson

The green jobs debate rages on. Some argue that all the stimulus money being poured into green efforts - such as renewable energy and building retrofitting - will create millions of jobs and will revitalize the economy. Others are not so sure.

The Institute for Energy Research just published a study challenging the rosy predictions of people like those at the Center for American Progress who predicted that $100 billion worth of green investment would create 2 million jobs. One criticism is that the term "green job" is ill-defined. This is certainly true, although the root of the problem is that "green" is pretty ill-defined to begin with.

There is no "green" sector; all sectors of our economic infrastructure are part of the problem, and fixing all of those parts will have to be part of the solution. A construction worker weatherizing a house has a green job just as much as a solar energy technician.

And so it is difficult to make predictions in the first place, let alone specify numbers like 2 million. But the Institute for Energy Research also points out that for all the jobs that will be created when we start building wind turbines, we will lose jobs at coal power plants. In fact, the impact will go far beyond just the power sector.

In his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Thomas L. Friedman writes: "But whenever I hear that 'we're having a green revolution' line, I can't resist firing back: 'Really? Really? A green revolution? Have you ever seen a revolution where no one got hurt?'"

In other words, change is exciting, but it runs the risk of causing some people, communities and industries to fall through the cracks. At the same time, although there is a desperate need for a whole new generation of technicians, engineers, mechanics and other skilled professionals to build and tend to tomorrow's photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal power plants, electric car and lithium-ion battery factories, ethanol and biodiesel factories, etc. - are there enough people with the necessary skills to fill those roles?

A hopeful way to look at the situation is to say: Why not teach all the people who will lose jobs in fossil fuel or carbon-emitting sectors to work in new, green sectors? I was very excited when I read that $500 million of stimulus money was going into education for green jobs. Education is important, to provide opportunities both for midcareer professionals who want to make the transition into green and for entry-level professionals who have their entire careers to contribute, innovate and develop.

With Van Jones as President Barack Obama's new unofficial "green jobs guru," there is a good chance that training and education will become cornerstones of coming green job policies. Mr. Jones believes in such training, especially for workers in poorer communities. Seeing as he wrote the book on the subject (The Green Collar Revolution), I'd imagine there's no one better to push the agenda in Washington.

Yoni Levinson wrote this article for the Ecogeek Web site. For more information, see www.ecogeek.org.

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