Overview: Green Collar Jobs

Prodded by rising energy prices, the role of “green collar jobs” and the “green economy” is now a common theme in community development circles. This section explores three key questions:

  • How should one define the “green economy” and “green collar jobs”?
  • How many green jobs are likely to be generated in the next 10 years—and for whom?
  • And, most important, will green jobs build wealth and assets for low- and middle-income Americans and help make a dent in our nation's growing wealth inequality?

A much cited definition of green collar jobs has been articulated by Raquel Pinderhughes, Director of the Urban Studies Program at San Francisco State University and author of Alternative Urban Futures: Planning for Sustainable Development in Cities: “blue-collar work force opportunities created by firms and organizations whose mission is to improve environmental quality.” Among the types of green jobs she identifies are: recycling and reuse; hazardous materials clean-up; building retrofits to increase energy efficiency and conservation; housing deconstruction; solar installation; urban agriculture; and manufacturing of items related to the green economy (e.g., solar panels). As Pinderhughes points out, many of these jobs have limited educational requirements, making green collar jobs natural replacements of traditional manufacturing jobs. Van Jones of Green for All also notes that many of these jobs are place-based – installing solar panels on a building in Oakland must be done on site; it can't be outsourced to another country.

A number of factors are leading to an increase in green collar jobs, including:

  • Activism stemming from the movement against environmental racism;
  • Passage of policies related to zero waste, energy and water conservation, solar energy, local procurement, open space, strengthening local food systems, and so on;
  • Rising consumer demand for environmentally friendly goods and services;
  • Increased costs for non-recyclable “fossil fuel” sources of energy; and
  • Heightened concern over global warming and a desire among city governments, businesses, and large anchor institutions to shrink their “carbon footprint.”

In 2009, President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as an initiative to kick-start the United States economy. In total, the ARRA allocated $48 billion for investments in job training and education, almost $100 billion to fund transportation and infrastructure, over $41 billion for energy-related programs, and $20 billion dedicated to tax incentives for renewable energy. This act resulted in an enormous boost for the green jobs movement as $500 million of these funds are provided to the Competitive Grants for Green Jobs Training Program. 

The Competitive Grants for Green Jobs Training Program helps prepare workers for careers dealing with energy-efficiency and renewable-energy. The provided funding is split between five programs: State Labor Market Information Improvement, Energy Training Partnerships, Pathways Out of Poverty, State Energy Sector Partnerships and Training, and Green Capacity Building. These grants are intended to guide program participants to sustainable job placement and to promote economic growth through the creation of jobs. This program is administered through the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration.

Another significant addition to the growth of green jobs came in 2010 when U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that $187 million in State Energy Sector Partnership and green jobs training grants. This money is authorized from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The goals of these investments are to create education and training that allows for career development for low-income, low-skilled workers in green industries, to support states in implementing a statewide energy sector strategy, to build partnerships dedicated to creating a workforce focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy, and to develop strategic relationships with other agencies receiving Recovery Act funds to support implementation efforts.

The growing “green economy” is already big business. A report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that the production of green goods and services accounts for 3.1 million jobs in the United States. These GGS jobs are found in businesses that provide services and produce goods that conserve natural resources or benefit the environment. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, renewable energy industries employed over 850,000 people in 2011. These jobs are in wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, biomass power, biodiesel, and ethanol production and distribution businesses. 

From a community wealth building perspective, a critical issue is whether the green economy will simply be business as usual (albeit more environmentally friendly) or whether green jobs will actually build assets and wealth for American families.

To date, most green jobs are seen as simply a new employment strategy for inner city residents and a new workforce development opportunity. The jobs that are envisioned are little different from any other job offered by a standard American company. If this trend continues, there is little reason to think that green jobs (even if targeted at low-income Americans) will be any better at supporting workers to build wealth and assets than other jobs available to low- and moderate-income people.

That said, a few promising approaches are emerging that represent an important opportunity for those wishing to employ community wealth building strategies that develop community ownership and community jobs at the same time. In particular, community groups have been active in employing green collar job strategies by:

  • Forming cooperatives to buy and/or produce renewable energy;
  • Creating alternative energy-focused worker cooperatives;
  • Organizing employee-owned green businesses to provide goods and services;
  • Developing green job corps apprenticeship programs;
  • Creating nonprofit social enterprise “deconstruction” businesses that salvage materials from existing businesses;
  • Developing “urban agriculture” programs that sell locally grown organic produce;
  • Creating energy efficient green affordable housing, thereby saving energy while also reducing residents' utility payments; and
  • Shifting existing manufacturing businesses toward hybrid vehicles and other alternative technologies.

The sections which follow identify the many organizations involved in doing support and policy work and research on these issues, as well as examples of innovative on-the-ground efforts. Given that this sector is newly emerging, there are relatively few mature models and much still to be done. Nonetheless, the promise of green jobs as an economic development strategy for local communities is clear, and we anticipate continuing innovation and growth in the years ahead.