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What Is a Green-Collar Job, Exactly?

5 minute read
Bryan Walsh

What do presidential candidates John McCain, Barack Obama and HillaryClinton have in common — aside from the obvious? They all love green-collar jobs. Obama promises to spend $150 billion over 10 years to create 5 million new green-collar jobs. Clinton references the term repeatedly on the trail, and says her energy plan will create millions of new green-collar jobs as well. McCain is less willing to cite numbers, but he too assures campaign audiences that action to decarbonize America’s economy will produce “thousands, millions of new jobs in America.”

All of which sounds great — we clean up the environment, control global warming and create an entirely new sector of employment while we’re at it. Academics have released lots of studies trumpeting the potential for green jobs — one report by the RAND Corporation and University of Tennessee found that if 25% of all American energy were produced from renewable sources by 2025, we would generate at least 5 million new green jobs. But there are just a few questions: what is green-collar? What makes it different from blue- or white-collar? And where will those jobs come from?

Phil Angelides has the answers — or at least one of them. A venture capitalist and the 2006 Democratic candidate for governor of California (he lost to the political world’s best-known Austrian-American), Angelides is the chair of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, labor and environmental groups championing green employment. Here’s how he defines a green job: “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.” (Hear Angelides discuss the green-collar revolution on this week’s Greencast.)

Sounds simple enough. And there are some jobs that fall obviously into the green-collar category, like the hundreds of employees who now work for the Spanish wind company Gamesa at its new plant in Fairless Hills, Pa. — a plant built on the site of an old U.S. Steel manufacturing facility. If you make wind turbines or solar panels, your job is reliably green. But Angelides and his allies want to cast a wider net. To them, a green-collar job can be anything that helps put America on the path to a cleaner, more energy efficient future. That means jobs in the public transit sector, jobs in green building, jobs in energy efficiency — even traditional, blue-collar manufacturing jobs, provided what you’re making is more or less green. (Building an SUV? Blue-collar. Building a hybrid? Green-collar.) The category can get a little messy. “You don’t want to greenwash,” says Angelides. “You don’t want to call something a green-collar job that doesn’t have the wages or background to support it.”

But there can be a strong temptation towards what might be called green-collar inflation, because the idea that environmentalism can actually add jobs is key to the new arguments for global warming action. On the surface, cap and trade and other anti–climate change policies look like short-term economic losers that will raise the cost of energy and lead to job loss. Certainly that’s the argument of many conservatives — a study by the National Association of Manufacturers estimated that one of the main carbon cap-and-trade proposals before Congress would cost the U.S. economy up to 4 million jobs by 2030.

But environmental groups like the Apollo Alliance flip that criticism around, arguing that the hard work of decarbonizing the American economy will actually create millions of new jobs. Someone, after all, will need to produce alternative power, increase energy efficiency and overhaul wasteful buildings. Angelides notes that between now and 2030, 75% of the buildings in the U.S. will either be new or substantially rehabilitated. Our inefficient, dangerously unstable electrical grid will need to be overhauled. The jobs that will go into that kind of work can be green-collar — provided that the government adopts the kind of policies that incentivize environmentally friendly choices. “Green jobs won’t be sprouting up only in new technology fields” like solar energy, says Angelides, whose group is calling for a $300 billion investment in green jobs over the next 10 years. “We’ll be creating jobs in the industrial sector.”

In other words, blue-collar can become green. It’s no surprise that one of the biggest supporters of the Apollo Alliance is the United Steelworkers Alliance — labor leaders see green jobs as a way to fight outsourcing and keep manufacturing alive in America. And there is a strong political component to green-collar jobs, which is why presidential candidates love talking about them so much. Environmentalism has usually been the reserve of the elite — but we’ll never have the power to tackle global warming unless we create a coalition that extends well beyond traditional white-collar greens. Touting green-collar jobs can convince skeptical, blue-collar Americans that they have an economic stake in curbing climate change. It’s far from certain that green-collar jobs will ever reach the critical mass that supporters like Angelides hope, but any idea that can bring Obama, McCain and Clinton together can’t be all bad — and it may help bring the rest of us together too.

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