It’s Not Easy Defining Green Jobs

By Pamela Babcock Jun 21, 2010
NEW YORK—Defining green jobs is tricky and open to plenty of interpretation. Not all green jobs are in fields that are emerging because of environmentally friendly trends. These days, a growing number of companies are adding duties or tasks to existing jobs to make them greener, experts said recently.

“Our belief of what a green job is continues to evolve,” Carol Singer Neuvelt, executive director of The National Association of EHS Management in Washington, D.C., told attendees June 17, 2010, during a panel discussion at a Corporate Citizenship and Sustainability Conference here presented by The Conference Board.

Kevin Coyle, vice president of education and training for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), said narrow thinking about what constitutes a green job is one hurdle when it comes to funding for education. “When you’re working on Capitol Hill and talking about green jobs, they tend to think of the person climbing up on the wind generator, and they’re not necessarily thinking about it in its fullest context.”

But when it comes to the preparedness of the U.S. for the more traditional careers in the coming green economy, “there’s a lot to worry about and a lot of questions that get raised,” Coyle said. The typical eighth grader has a 4 percent chance of graduating from college with a science, technology, engineering or math degree, he said.

What Are Green Careers?

When it comes to green careers, it pays to start with a definition. Conference session moderator Jennifer Schramm, the Society for Human Resource Management’s manager of Workplace Trends and Forecasting, said she likes the U.S. Department of Labor definition, which says a green career can be any occupation that is affected by activities such as conserving energy, developing alternative energy, reducing pollution or recycling, because multiple categories “make it a little easier to think about green jobs and green careers.”

The categories are:

  • High-Demand Green Occupations. These are existing jobs. The duties aren’t changing but the occupation is expected to grow because of the increased demand for green goods and services. Examples: Bus drivers are needed to fill an increased demand for public transit; carpenters are needed for green construction and retrofitting projects.
  • Changing Skills/Green Occupations. These fields are adding tasks or specialties because of the demand for green goods and services. Examples: Public relations specialists might need to develop expertise in marketing green products or services; farmers or ranchers might need to expand sustainable farming practices.
  • New Green Occupations. These fields are emerging because of green trends. “These are completely new jobs,” Schramm said. Think energy auditors, chief sustainability officers and wind energy engineers.

Companies are at different stages of their sustainability programs, “especially when it comes to the responsibilities,” according to Michael L. Flanagan, co-owner of National Resource Solutions Inc., a Carmel, Ind. environmental, health and safety recruiting and placement firm that specializes in industrial work.

One might have a vice president of sustainability strictly focused on developing a sustainability program, while another might have environmental, health and safety (EHS) staff working on energy reduction programs. Small companies often have their EHS staff focused strictly on compliance “because of financial constraints and the available talent pool.”

Flanagan said he expects to see sustainability responsibilities “morph into the non-EHS roles—finances, sales and marketing, supply chain—and those folks will begin interacting a lot more with EHS/sustainability professionals.”

Flanagan said he’s concerned that there might not be enough “knowledgeable and talented EHS/sustainability professionals to go around to meet the need, especially for smaller companies that have limited resources.”

To excel, companies will need technical skills to keep up with cutting-edge technologies, creativity to adapt technology to various situations, and operational awareness with “boots on the ground” and the ability to know how sustainability fits into the production process and the organization itself.

In addition, they need to be good communicators and negotiators, internally and externally: a sleuth who can “find a home for their product,” an educator who can show the benefits to the organization and a salesperson for programs and processes. And, lastly, it pays to have global knowledge and experience because “products are going everywhere,” Flanagan said.

Possible Hurdles

Coyle said when it comes to educating the future workforce that will hold green jobs, higher education might not be succeeding. Although a NWF “Campus Environment” study done in 2001 and again in 2008 showed a surge in interest in campus greening and an increased commitment by campus administrators to sustainability, the classroom has not kept pace.

“You’d think during this time with the interest in global warming that there would have been a substantial increase in what higher education was teaching with respect to sustainability and the environment,” Coyle said. But, he added, “We found that it actually had dropped a little bit, which was very surprising to us.”

While the 2009 economic stimulus package included substantial funding for so-called green jobs, it didn’t put much emphasis on education, Coyle said. Meanwhile, he said a study by the Academy of Educational Development found that community colleges “were not systemically making the adjustment to prepare people for the green job economy. There are a lot of different reasons for that … and it is an area where there is a great more focus needed.”

He noted, however, that there are other efforts under way. Green For All, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit, is working to build what it calls “an inclusive green economy” by offering low-skilled adults “a pathway out of poverty.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer based in the New York City area.

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