What is a good green job and how does one go about getting one…or at least training for it?
by Wendy Priesnitz
There is no perfect definition of the term “green job” and the field is subject to its own style of greenwashing. I define a good green job as one that contributes to solving the climate change problem, and that pays a living wage or more. Often, the term is used more vaguely, to describe positions in “natural” or “organic” (other problematic words) consumer products and services, or in the renewable energy and environmental conservation fields. As sustainability (another fraught term) has become more popular, we see any job in those fields being called “green” – including those such as administrative assistant, marketing representative and computer programmer, which require no special “green” training.
On one hand, I think that’s actually a good thing, since we all need to think green and every worker should be integrating sustainability practices into every job. However, that makes it difficult to sort out what is and isn’t a green job, let alone what is a good green job!
Green Collar Jobs
The definition of “green collar job” is a bit simpler, since it refers to the eco version of what we normally call blue collar jobs. That means an auto assembly line worker might become a wind turbine mechanic. And that person would obviously require special training.
There is a sense developing among some policy makers that to be truly green, a job must play a role in building a sustainable economy. And that includes not just environmental quality and general economic prosperity, but a reduction in poverty, inequality and discrimination. The Green Collar Jobs in America’s Cities report by Green for All and its partner the Apollo Alliance put it this way: “If a job improves the environment, but doesn’t provide a family supporting wage or a career ladder to move low-income workers into higher skilled occupations, it is not a green-collar job.” For instance, employment in industries such as recycling and waste management tends to be precarious and incomes low.
The second issue is that there is a great deal of hype and even a lot of outright fiction around green jobs.
Assessments of the current availability of such jobs vary wildly and are often extremely optimistic. However, it would appear that demand could increase quickly, given the efforts of a number of governments to solve the climate change crisis through spending on carbon reduction programs and green infrastructure.
The UNEP’s Green Jobs Initiative predicts that efforts to curb climate change will seed millions of new green jobs around the globe in the coming decades. According to its report Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable Low-Carbon World, the global market for sustainable products and services is projected to double from $1.37 trillion to $2.74 trillion annually by the year 2020, with building and construction ranking among those sectors expected to have a significant environmental, economic and employment impact.
The problem for younger workers needing jobs now is that the transition to a green economy – as urgent as we all know it is – won’t happen overnight. And nobody knows if the new green jobs will replace the huge number of blue (or should we say “brown”?) collar jobs that will be lost as governments and industry work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the auto and energy industries adjusts to new economic realities.
Types of Green Jobs
Many of the new jobs will be created in the renewable energy field – solar electricity, wind energy, geothermal, and so on. People are needed in the design, engineering, manufacturing, and installation sectors, both residential and commercial. Demand in the field of environmental engineering is officially expected to grow fifteen percent in the next decade, but the ever-growing attention to environment-oriented technologies means that this figure is likely to be even higher.
The energy efficiency field in general presents a huge job creation opportunity, since such measures offer the most benefit for the least cost and will therefore be the most popular among consumers. At the forefront of that trend are energy auditing, insulation, and other types of renovations and retrofits.
The green building industry will likely continue to grow, with green construction management becoming an important role. A survey conducted by McGraw-Hill Construction in partnership with the National Association of Home Builders found that more than one fifth of builders said they’d be building ninety percent of their projects green in the near future.
Many more jobs will be created on the periphery of the actual construction industry. Organic and water-conserving landscaping jobs are also expected to increase, as are opportunities for non-toxic cleaning in both residential and commercial buildings, hauling and reuse of construction materials and debris, and water efficiency technology.
Sustainable transportation is another sector that’s bound to offer an increasing number of jobs – everything from bicycle repair and bike delivery services to public transit and design, manufacturing and repair of alternative fuel vehicles.
Sustainable forest management alone could generate as many as ten million new green jobs internationally, according to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Jan Heino, the deputy head of FAO’s Forestry Department says that “since forests and trees are vital storehouses of carbon, such an investment could also make a major contribution to climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.” New jobs could include forest management, agroforestry and farm forestry, improved fire management, development and management of trails and recreation sites, expansion of urban green spaces, restoring degraded forests and planting new ones.
Many of the evolving green careers are environmental twists on established professions, like law, architecture, product and packaging design, journalism, and urban planning, as well as jobs in the ecotourism industry. And many of the skilled trades are required in green construction and renewable energy as much as they are in dirty resource-based industries.
Others examples of evolving green opportunities are engineering careers tied to research in renewable technologies like wind energy and alternative fuel production. A new branch of science called biomimicry uses Nature as a model for solving engineering problems. Emissions brokers will be in high demand in areas that are moving to a mandatory trading system for greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental journalist Joel Makower has his finger on the pulse of the green economy. In his online publication GreenBiz.com, he demonstrates that good green jobs are not just a passing fad. He told Forbes magazine that there’s a proven market, government backing, and corporate buy-in for sustainability. And he says to expect green business and green careers to grow even more over the next decade.
In the meantime, job-specific training or upgrading in your field of choice is a good career investment.
The growth in interest in green jobs means there is a comparable growth in green education and job training programs. Universities are adding green MBA programs and offering other post-graduate degree programs, such as joint MBA/environmental science masters. And some are having a hard time keeping up with student demand. In Australia, 2008 applications for agriculture, environment, and related studies increased one hundred and twelve percent over the previous year. Around the same time in Canada, Dalhousie University created a groundbreaking undergrad cross-faculty program called “Environment, Sustainability and Society” at the country’s first College of Sustainability. But that’s just one of thousands of environmental courses available at universities and colleges these days.
Like Dalhousie, many institutions are making the environment a major focus and creating centers of sustainability. Such centers give students the chance to address environmental challenges through coursework, research, and hands-on involvement by greening their communities and their campuses.
Much of the green collar job training is happening at the technical college level, where programs are popping up like weeds in fields like renewable energy, building renovation and restoration, energy efficiency, and natural building techniques.
The Environmental Science website is a good source of information about good green jobs, including job descriptions, compensation information, and training resources. It points out the rapid growth in, and diversity of, environmental careers.
Organizations like Solar Energy International (SEI), a leader in solar energy education courses for close to twenty years, are another source of training. SEI, which offers both online and hands-on training in solar PV, wind, micro-hydro, and solar hot water, is experiencing huge growth in the number of people interested in taking its classes due to the growth in the green market. LEED training through the U.S. Green Building Council would be helpful if you’re interested in the construction field.
While waiting for the green jobs to multiply, along with improving your education, there are always opportunities to get some hands-on, real world experience by volunteering with local sustainability projects or non-profits focusing on the area in which you’re interested.
Networking through initiatives like Green Drinks or local environmental groups will also provide contacts for when positions open up that will help to improve the world. Online, LinkedIn groups like the 100,000+ member Green Jobs and Career Network are great places to find green job opportunities. There are also websites like Green Jobs and goodwork.ca that are dedicated to helping people find green jobs. Sustainable Business is another website that has a job board. An Internet search will turn up many more green training and job opportunities. And many of the big, mainstream employment sites now have green jobs sections.
So whatever your field of interest and expertise, with some effort you should be able to find a good, green job. Lastly, though, here’s some advice from Eco Canada’s Land Your Green Dream Job report:
“It is important to understand an organization’s commitment to the environment within the context of other considerations. Just because the organization is involved in an environmental business does not mean that they are looking for employees that are passionate about the environment to the exclusion of having a balanced perspective. Most successful environmental employees are those that are reasonable, objective, and rational, rather than overly passionate about the environment. They are interested in the science behind their work, about innovation, or about servicing their clients. Successful professionals seek employment with an organization whose values align with their own.”