The Gray Area of Green: Green Jobs Discussion Should Focus on Reality, Not Buzzwords

A brief but to-the-point column from Governing’s Christopher Swope attempts to inject some reality into the green jobs discussion. He notes that while it makes for admirable rhetoric to tout "green jobs," one must look deeper than a label to determine if a green job is actually green:

Suddenly, everyone is talking about "green jobs." Task forces in Connecticut, Minnesota and New Mexico, among other states, are looking at how to attract, create and retain them. Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Mayors has been trumpeting a report predicting 4.2 million new green jobs over the next 30 years.

That sounds nice. But what exactly is a green job? It’s a maddeningly difficult question to answer. There’s more hype than there is good research on the subject, and just about any claim anyone wants to make seems to stick.

That’s unfortunate. Because throwing around wild numbers masks where the real economic opportunities are. For example, manufacturing and installing wind turbines would create brand-new job markets in a country that never really has had much of a wind-power industry. But most of the jobs that get labelled "green" these days are positions that already exist and bear only tangential relationships to the environment. A study done for the state of Colorado counts some Wal-Mart employees as green, because a percentage of the products the retailer sells are Energy Star-certified. Cashiers, janitors, accountants, secretaries, lawyers, even government officials — all can be "green workers" if their work touches energy efficiency in almost any way.

Not that using less electricity and putting people to work aren’t worthy goals. But rather than chasing buzzwords, policy makers should recruit specific industries that have realistic chances of success in their states. When you dig into the numbers being touted on green jobs, you find a lot fewer photovoltaic specialists and geothermal engineers — and a lot more cashiers and truck drivers — than you may want.