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What Exactly Are Green Jobs?

Even if there were a usable model to analyze job creation, we are left with the problem of identifying which jobs are actually “green.”  A renewable project can result in the employment of technical personnel trained to specialize in operating or maintaining its technology (whom we presume are green), as well as additional bartenders who will help the workers to enjoy their evenings (harder to classify as green).

The matter is important because any type of governmental or private spending might open up slots for bartenders.  Renewable technologies, however, have been viewed as the foundation for a massive increase in skilled workers whose human capital will provide them with higher lifelong earnings.

Two recent studies point up that the choice of definitions can affect estimates of the green workforce, and show that an extremely small fraction of jobs defined as green are in renewables.

Brookings Study: Bus Drivers, Trashmen “Green’
The Brookings Institution recently estimated 2.7 million jobs associated with the “clean economy.”  The categories include “Agricultural and Natural Resources Conservation” (18.9 %), “Regulation and Compliance” (5.3%), “Energy and Resource Efficiency” (31.0%), and “Greenhouse Gas Reduction, Environmental Management, and Recycling” (39.6%).

The clean economy expands its bounds by creative classification.  Thus we find that energy efficiency includes 350,000 people in public mass transit, mostly bus drivers, and environmental management includes 386,000 people in waste management, formerly known as trash disposal.

The researchers chose not to use an alternative definition that would have been far more helpful to most readers:  how many clean jobs have (or will) come into being as a result of recent and proposed energy, environmental and climate regulations?  (And, of course, how many others will vanish.)

Some additional insight is possible when we consider the Brookings’ final category.  “Renewable Energy” contains 138,000 clean jobs, only 5.1 percent of the total.  If we subtract the 55,000 of them in hydropower, which most data sources class as nonrenewable, the figure is down to 84,000, or 3.1 percent of all clean jobs.  29,000 of this remainder are in solar (thermal and photovoltaic), which accounts for under 1 percent of actual renewable power production.  24,000 more are in wind (17.4 percent of renewable power workers and under 1 percent of total clean workers).

Even if we are willing to assume very large “multipliers” from renewable power, its impact on employment will be trivial, whether taken as a fraction of all energy, clean economy jobs, or the entire labor force.

Washington State Study

A second study was performed by the Washington State Employment Security Department, entitled 2009 Washington State Green Economy Jobs (Mar. 2010).

Environmental awareness is high, and renewable energy (non-hydro) is a significant presence in this state. The study’s four base categories are:

[1] Increasing energy efficiency

[2] Producing renewable energy

[3] Preventing and reducing environmental pollution, and

[4] Providing mitigation or cleanup of pollution.

Like Brookings, a significant fraction of the study’s identified “green” workers are bus drivers, trash handlers and the like.  The Washington data show that renewable energy occupies 3,464 workers, 3.5 percent of the state’s 99,979 green jobs. Its current wind capacity is 2,357 MW, ranking it sixth among the states.

Washington is one of the most active states in wind investment and production, but still only a small percentage of its green workforce works with renewables, including wind.  The Washington study’s authors further note that  “construction-relat¬ed industries and occupations, as well as professional and techni¬cal services occupations, accounted for the majority of all [renewable] positions.

The majority of these jobs are in manufacturing and construction.  Per project, both are short-lived, and once in operation “most renewable energy facilities operate with a relatively small number of operations and maintenance employees….  The proportion of part-time positions is higher for renewable energy than for any other private-sector core area (35 percent).”

Both the Brookings and the Washington data tell similar stories.  Green or clean jobs are not objectively definable, and cases like the bus drivers tell us that they are easy to inflate.  Under both studies’ definitions, renewable power jobs are small fractions of the total, and most will be short-lived construction work performed in the main by people with skills that are usable in almost any type of project.

Washington’s wind units produce a higher fraction of the state’s power than those of most other states, but their existence has not created any discernible difference in Washington’s labor market performance.  Similarly, it appears that most of the solar work force is in construction, where opportunities will diminish with the growth of installations.  The past three years have led many to question the federal government’s ability to create new employment and the odd logic that lies behind that hope.


The data from the above studies should make it clear to both believers and nonbelievers that renewable power is a singularly inappropriate and ineffective way to increase employment.

The public policy implications are clear: the invisible jobs from consumer-driven decisions should be contrasted with the visible bubble jobs of special government favor.

By. Robert Michaels

This article was provided by MasterResource

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