Are Green Jobs Programs Justified?

Power lines
As colleges and nonprofits wrap up training programs for green jobs, the results of those programs are increasingly difficult to track. (stockxchng/sundstrom)
By Ryan Newhouse

Community colleges have shown that they are responsive to economic and industrial needs in the United States, and many have been adding, featuring or embedding elements of green technologies into their curriculum, preparing for a speculated green job “boom” since the August 2008 passing of the Higher Education Sustainability Act, which allocated $500 million to the Department of Labor for green jobs education and training. Today, however, some are beginning to ask where those green jobs are hiding.

“I think with the stimulus funds there’s a struggle to make them do what they wanted them to do,” says Jodi Helmer, co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Green Careers. “The economy has clearly created a need for more jobs but has made it harder to create a job from scratch. It’s easier to change an existing job.”

This could make it increasingly difficult to accurately gauge “green job” growth if only new jobs are used as indicators of success.

“There are going to be some sexy new jobs created, like brownfield positions, or wind turbine technicians,” says Helmer, “but there’s going to be a lot of people who are refiguring what they already do to meet the needs of the green economy. People are ignoring the fact that a lot of existing jobs are being greened, and that’s a really important part of the green economy.”

Investing in the green economy, according to a report by Robert Pollin and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, shows substantial potential for job growth. In the report, Pollin finds that for every $1 million in clean energy spending, roughly 17 jobs are created. In contrast, for every $1 million spent on fossil fuels, only five jobs are created. One of the advantages of clean energy is that it is labor-intensive, and workers must be hired to retrofit old buildings and install renewable energy technologies. With fossil fuels, more money is spent on equipment and land than on wages.

Currently, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) would establish a cap-and-trade plan for greenhouse gas emissions, and according to Pollin’s report, in conjunction with the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, the laws would generate $150 billion a year in new clean energy investments. The ACES bill includes both immediate spending in clean energy, including $3 billion in the next few years for retrofitting residential and commercial buildings, and through “cap-and-trade,” a long-term chance at sustaining green job growth through the reinvestment of permit proceeds. The bill was passed by the House (219-212) in June 2009 and now awaits a vote by the Senate.

But for those who are seeking a more immediate remedy to their situation, the issue is not defining what is green and what is not or what may be coming in the next decade. The issue is finding work; however, sorting through accurate job placement rates, which green technology fields are hiring, and what skills are most marketable is a delicate web for schools to unravel.

“Our approach as a community college,” explains Kitty O’Doherty, convener of the New Energy Workforce (NEW) Initiative, a collaborative project of San Francisco Bay community colleges, “is that we do a lot of analyses up front before we start new courses and programs so we are not training for jobs that aren’t going to be there, but I would add that we are in many ways taking a leap of faith and the future is the future; it’s uncertain.”

Hardly deterred, O’Doherty is optimistic that jobs in the green economy will be there in the near future, which asks the question whether it is too quick to judge if the green job market is a myth or just temporarily delayed.

“We are seeing people get jobs,” says O’Doherty. “One thing about green energy is that it is a broad sector, so certain skills make you employable in a lot of areas.”

“We use labor market reports to drive our efforts,” add O’Doherty. “This is the data we use to say, ‘Yes, this is worth it.'”

According to a recent California labor market report, prepared by Centers of Excellence, 45 percent of the energy and utility workforce in the state will be eligible for retirement in the next five years, and 71 percent of employers have some degree of difficulty recruiting experienced employees with adequate skills and work experience.

Although she keeps one clear eye on the future of green jobs, O’Doherty admits that an effort for community colleges to remember the past is greatly needed, particularly past students. Without such an effort, it becomes difficult to accurately determine if graduates are finding the jobs for which they’ve trained.

“One of the biggest challenges for community colleges is tracking people after they leave our courses and programs,” says O’Doherty. “We put so much energy into building our programs, but in truth we don’t have a lot of resources to track people.”

In June 2009, O’Doherty and several colleagues with De Anza College Professional & Workforce Development completed a two-year, $650,000 project funded by the California Community Colleges State Chancellor’s Office to train and certify workers to install solar photovoltaic panels.

The curriculum created during the project was used primarily at San Jose City, Cabrillo and Ohlone community colleges, and over the course of two years, 225 students graduated from the program in all three colleges, but only 25 landed internships or jobs.

“Before we started the program,” says Catherine Ayers, former Project Director for Professional & Workforce Development, “it appeared that the green jobs were available, but then we went into a construction industry depression and the tax rebates weren’t immediately renewed, so there were some obstacles there.”

And though 25 out of 225 may not ring as a high percentage, Ayers suggests a little perspective on those figures. “Not everyone taking the course was actually thinking they wanted a job up on a roof,” she states. “Many were taking the course to find out what this new thing is -solar energy-and some were wanting to put something up on their own house. There was a percentage of those people in those classes, however, who did want jobs.”

And Ayers admits that, in the end, the reality was there were more people who wanted jobs than there were jobs available.

“But I don’t know if that’s still happening,” says Ayers. “Honestly, we haven’t followed up. Our grant didn’t require that we place people. This was a capacity-building grant. But we’re still getting requests from employers and we finished back in June 2009.”

Aside from funding constraints, job placement tracking isn’t proving to carry much weight at community colleges in general.

“We’re not required to follow up on job placement tracking,” explains Tricia Evans, Dean of Career Technical Education at Santiago Canyon College. “It’s done for us. We don’t follow up because we have core indicators provided from federal Carl Perkins money for vocational program effectiveness and improvement.”

Not only are many community colleges not tracking where their students end up, the job placement data that does get tied to a school may not be completely accurate, according to Evans. “We have data, but it’s misleading. The vast majority of students in our classrooms, perhaps two-thirds, already have jobs, and they count as a job placement even though we didn’t get them the job.”

As experts examine the intricacies of the green job market, green training programs, job placement reporting and tracking procedures, there is still one question that must be raised in this discussion, and that is determining what role an educator plays in job placement success and what is left to the applicant.

“I don’t get a job because I’m environmentally sensitive and I’m a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club,” explains Evans. “People get jobs by integrating green practices into their own skill sets.”

“It reminds me of GIS,” adds Evans. “Everyone was setting up programs on GIS, but there’s no “GISer” out there. You’re a marketing guy trying to find out where to put a McDonald’s or a cop figuring out where the crime scene is. You use GIS; it’s not that you are a ‘GISer’.”

Evans also believes that talk about “green jobs” or “green programs” misses the true point that people should be focusing on greening their jobs and programs, and just how much time, effort and education one needs to achieve that greening is debatable.

“There’s a very strong cautionary streak in those of us who’ve been around the block awhile, and I have,” says Evans. “There are what we call ‘ride-along-jobs.’ In other words, we all once ran around making programs for cable guys, saying the new thing is coming and it’s cable TV, but those are all ‘ride-along-jobs.’ You ask a guy how he learned to install cable TV and he’d say he rode along, and not for that long. They just learned it, so the program ends up languishing.”

Regardless if the green job market is here, coming soon, requires extensive training or just a “ride-along,” students and community college leaders will continue to look for work as it becomes available, create or adapt courses and wait for the economy to turn around.

Suggesting the green market is really yet to come, one report claims that the global clean-tech market is expected to surpass $1 trillion in value within the next few years due to a “perfect storm” of factors, including carbon constraints, increased global energy demand and long-term oil price hikes.

“We need to be ready,” explains author Jodi Helmer, “and while we’re being patient, we can also be preparing. There’s disappointment that it’s not happening as quickly as we would like, but it’s not false hope.”

“Training is really, really important,” Helmer adds, “because there are openings for people who have green skills, and there are just not enough people at this point who have green skills. I think community colleges have done an outstanding job of stepping up and creating programs to help meet these demands. They respond really quickly. It hasn’t taken years to develop curriculum, and they’re experiencing good success.”