Now that the dancing and denials of reality are over, for the moment, it is time to look ahead at the task of creating a sustainable economy for the 21st century. In the last 2 years, the notion of the “cleantech bust” has overtaken earlier projections that the clean energy sector can act as an economic engine. It would be good, moving into Barack Obama’s second term, to have some clear data on the relation between the cleantech sector and job creation.
And, as a matter of fact, there are copious studies and reports available on the topic. Unfortunately they are often confusing or conflicting.
The Labor Department has produced four reports on green jobs in the last year: two from the department’s inspector general’s office and two from the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). They paint a discouraging picture.
Last month the department’s inspector general, in a report titled “Recovery Act: Green Jobs Program Reports Limited Success in Meeting Employment and Retention Goals as of June 30, 2012,” stated that federal funded local training programs designed to fill green jobs have mostly been jokes: Half the trainees received 5 or fewer days of training, the number of trainees who found green jobs was less than 40% of the target, and the agencies couldn’t even document the outcomes for around a third of those who completed the program.
In an earlier report, “Employment in Green Goods and Services—2010,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics provided a more encouraging overview: The United States had 3.1 million green jobs in 2010. That number, though, was based on a bureaucrat’s definition of a “green job. ” “For instance, according to the report, there were 33 times as many green jobs in the septic tank and portable toilet servicing industry as there are in solar electricity utilities,” noted the Heritage Foundation, acidly, “and more green jobs selling used merchandise (think the Salvation Army store) than in engineering services.”
It’s not hard to find contrary evidence. In July 2011, the centrist Brookings Institution released a report (“Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment”) that concluded, “The clean economy, which employs some 2.7 million workers, encompasses a significant number of jobs in establishments spread across a diverse group of industries.” Cleantech employs more workers than the fossil fuel or bioscience industries, the study concluded. The same caveat, though, applies: It depends on your definition of cleantech. “Most clean economy jobs reside in mature segments that cover a wide swath of activities including manufacturing and the provision of public services such as wastewater and mass transit.”
So, if you don’t count hotel housekeepers and garbagemen as “cleantech jobs,” then things look pretty grim. Right? Umm, not quite. “The clean energy sector in particular is growing very quickly,” reported Bryan Walsh in Time, citing the Brookings study. “It grew by 8.3% between 2003 and 2010, nearly twice as fast as the overall economy during those years.”
What’s more, those mythical high-tech jobs in renewable energy are materializing, as well: The pace of job growth in solar power is 5 times as fast as that of the broader economy, reported the Solar Foundation in a jobs survey released last month. Solar industry employment increased from about 105,000 to 119,000 in the last 12 months, a 13% jump.
Outside the Bubble
The realities of the cleantech economy are invisible to politicians inside the D.C. bubble, according to the authors of “Red, White and Green: The True Colors of America’s Clean Tech Jobs,” a report from DBL Investors, a socially conscious investment firm based in San Francisco.
“Outside of the capital, where governors (and mayors) are more concerned with creating jobs than scoring debate points, there is no controversy about the impact of cleantech. It is almost universally appreciated as the important engine for job development and economic growth that it is. Disregarding the partisan bickering in Washington, these local officials are using clean tech to bring high-quality jobs to their states, in the process reviving communities and winning the support of local voters in both parties.”
So your view of the cleantech sector’s potential for job growth largely depends on which lens you choose to look through. A few points are inarguable, though:
- Cleantech jobs are growing, just not in the places you might look first
- Federal job training programs for mythical “green jobs” are largely ineffective
- That money is better spent on R&D and bringing promising technologies to market
- It’s time to shift from grandiose high-tech schemes to more grounded, affordable, and realistic green technologies and business models
- Cleantech will never fully thrive without a coherent and publicly supported national energy policy
The Brookings authors summed up that final obstacle: “The fact that significant policy uncertainties and gaps are weakening market demand for clean economy goods and services, chilling finance, and raising questions about the clean innovation pipeline reinforces the need for engagement and reform. Not only are other nations bidding to secure global production and the jobs that come with it, but the United States currently risks failing to exploit growing world demand.”
Tags: Industrial Innovations, Climate Change, Economics & Employment, Finance & Investing, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice
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