What Color Is Your Collar? What Color Is Your Collar?
The Planet

What Color Is Your Collar?

by Ben Jervey

October 24, 2008

Toward a definition of "green-collar"

Despite all the clamor about "green-collar" jobs, there's no real consensus as to what exactly one is. "Green-collar" jobs are, however, the linchpin of any proposal to develop a clean energy industry that will provide necessary economic stimulus while combating climate change. Can we really fix our environmental and economic woes, if we can't define the solution's key ingredient?Chances are, when you hear a politician make claims like, "I want to put money into clean-energy jobs, green-collar jobs"-as Hillary Clinton said in a primary debate back in January-you think of a guy up on a rooftop installing solar panels, or a steelworker manufacturing wind turbines. But it'd be tough to create the five million new "green-collar" jobs that Clinton promised (and Obama still pledges) through solar installs and turbines alone-that's too narrow a view.Depending on whom you ask, green-collar jobs could be found in construction, manufacturing, installation, maintenance, agriculture, or any number of other economic sub-spheres. Such a flexible definition makes it tricky to figure out how many of these jobs exist now, let alone how large the sector could grow. Two recent reports highlight just how difficult such estimates can be: This month, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released a report on "Current and Potential Green Jobs in the U.S Economy" (pdf). It states that 751,051 such jobs currently exist. Contrast that figure with the American Solar Energy Society's (ASES) claims of 8.5 million workers in renewable energy and energy efficiency (RE&EE). That's something of an exponential discrepancy.The U.S. Mayors' calculations actually include a broader swath of industry-including some fields that'd make most environmentalists cringe, such as corn and soy-based biofuel production and nuclear power-but are more strict about what type of jobs qualify. Despite a tighter focus on renewables and efficiency, the ASES study includes all jobs within these fields, with the explanation that:"We found that the vast majority of the jobs created by RE&EE are standard jobs for accountants, engineers, computer analysts, clerks, factory workers, truck drivers, mechanics, etc. Thus, in our definition, the RE&EE industry encompasses all aspects of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and includes both the direct and indirect jobs created in both these sectors."Indeed, the blue- or white- to green-collar distinction can be a tough one to make, and it likely depends on who's talking. Take for example what Dave Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a partnership of the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, told The New York Times when speaking of the miners who dig up the iron ore that forms steel: "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." Do the miners even know the color of their collar has changed?Most blue- and white- collar jobs won't suddenly morph into "green-collar" ones. Many will be entirely new occupations-say, a wind turbine technician or a green roof landscaper. Others exist in expanding fields that could soon fall under the "green-collar" umbrella-like bus drivers or mass transit maintenance workers. But many more still will grow out of existing professions that require new skills specific to the growing clean, green economy: a construction worker newly trained in energy efficiency and insulation, an electrician who can install photovoltaics, a farmer converting his crop to organic, an auto-technician building plug-in hybrids, or an engineer programming a smart electrical grid.To add another wrinkle, more and more advocates are emphasizing that in order to be considered "green-collar" (and not merely "green") a job must be good for the worker, and also for the environment. This is the cause currently championed by industry, labor and environmental crossover groups like the Apollo Alliance. Phil Angelides, the Alliance's chair, offered these specs: "It has to pay decent wages and benefits that can support a family. It has to be part of a real career path, with upward mobility. And it needs to reduce waste and pollution and benefit the environment." Thus, a necessary qualification is that a "green collar" job be, in essence, a good job; it's not enough for a job to simply benefit the planet. A solar panel sweatshop or a temp gig pushing papers for a biofuels startup just won't cut it.Given the political importance of promising and proving the "main street" economic benefits of any climate change action, this distinction-good and green-is crucial. Perhaps the simplest and smartest definition is the Apollo Alliance's well-worn line: "family-supporting, career-track jobs in green industries." This concept is the backbone of Van Jones' (who GOOD profiled in issue 010) new book, "The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems:" Good local jobs that pay well, strengthen communities, provide pathways out of poverty, and-oh yeah-help solve our environmental problems as well.(Photo from Flickr user tuey)
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What Color Is Your Collar?