Green-Collar Jobs Glossary and Guide

It’s easy enough to say you want to work for an environmentally sensitive company or take advantage of the growing “green economy,” but both are hard to find, even advocates admit.


What’s a green-collar job?

The easiest definition is any job focused on sustainability: limiting a company’s consumption of natural resources and production of pollutants. Green goals include limits on carbon emissions, use of energy and material resources as well as more recycling, said Jennifer M. Cleary, a researcher at the The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

Not all jobs are green, even at the greenest of companies. An accountant is still an accountant, even in a company that recycles hybrid mini-cars and hemp using solar power, biodiesel and rainwater. By contrast, a procurement manager at a paper plant may find her job is almost entirely focused on green skills.

It’s likely we will all have green jobs in the future, said G. Dodd Galbreath, executive director at the Institute for Sustainable Practice and assistant professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. Rather than requiring a new breed of “green jobs,” it’s likely the new green economy will simply require all of us to employ some green skills.

What is clear is that being green, or managing a business process so that it is environmentally sustainable, will become a key part of many managers’ jobs and a requirement of most business processes, Gallbreath said.

This role will include managers in charge of manufacturing, distribution, sourcing, design, research, facilities or materials management, and nearly every other part of a business that supports either workers internally or produces products or services externally, Galbreath said.

What’s a green skill?

One that helps you eliminate waste and streamline a business process to minimize its environmental impact, Cleary said. An example of an overt green skill is the financing and exchange of “carbon credits” on either an open or closed market. ( Carbon credits, each of which is equal to a ton of carbon emitted into the environment, are the unit of trade for governmental systems that cap the amount of greenhouse gases that can be emitted by a nation’s industries. They create emissions-trading markets in which businesses buy or sell the right to emit those gases.)

More-subtle green skills would include knowledge about the lifecycle of products and the material used to produce them; knowledge about the source and type of power used in manufacturing, transport and powering of a business; and an understanding of the environmental impact of choosing air freight versus truck or ship.

Where is green most important?

If you work in energy, you have to walk the green walk. Much of the $60 billion earmarked for clean energy in the Obama administration’s stimulus plan is intended to make the United States more energy efficient and independent. Heavy manufacturing and transportation are almost as high on the list. People in other industries at least have to talk a good game or get left behind. But if you want a job in energy and don’t already know the pros and cons of renewable and fossil energy sources, the next few months may be long and cold, no matter what the outside temperature.

Where do you go to get the skills?

Arizona State University is probably the best-known business program with a focus on sustainability, but there are dozens of others, Galbreath said. The year-old program at Lipscomb is among those offering a degree based on green-skills education.

Most business schools have some level of sustainability training, as do executive-training companies, Galbreath said, but they’re not yet worth the time and money for job seekers. There aren’t enough green-centric jobs to justify the expense and there aren’t enough standard practices to make a more generic education useful.

Green training doesn’t work without integration with traditional industries and skill sets, Cleary wrote in a recent presentation to educators.

Most of the real knowledge comes from putting green principles into practice in a particular industry. Galbreath recommends anyone interested in gaining green skills should pursue a green job or industry and learn on the job, putting the cost of education on your employer.