Green-Collar Jobs: Myth or Reality?

“Green-collar” jobs are mostly springing up at companies that sell sustainability; the rest of the business world isn’t rushing to hire a new crop of green execs.


In the media and in political pronouncements, much has been made of the promise of “green jobs” and the new “green economy.”

Championed by President Obama and his cabinet, new ecological incentives and regulations have been portrayed as a boon for employment in companies invested in environmentally sustainable practices. But will companies look for new executive talent to lead these efforts?

In other words, are green jobs for real, and should you make green a priority in your job search now?

Simply put, the green economy – professions and businesses focused on limiting consumption of natural resources and production of pollutants – isn’t baked yet, said recruiters and green-jobs experts who spoke to Ladders. There will be few specifically green jobs available in the immediate future, and most jobs at green companies won’t require you to learn new, green skills, they said.

“Green for green’s sake is not a profession,” said G. Dodd Galbreath, executive director at the Institute for Sustainable Practice and assistant professor at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. The whole green movement has not yet developed to the point that it can generate enough jobs to become an economic force or a real alternative to mid- and senior-level executives looking for jobs that supply a paycheck and satisfy their need to work in an environmentally friendly business, he said.

Green promise

Green-collar jobs suggest new opportunities to a new breed of worker trained to manage sustainable practices at any type of business and run the new businesses building and designing green technology and materials.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a report late in 2008 that predicts the impact of environmentally sensitive business practices will be such a potent force in the economy that “green” will generate 4.2 million new jobs, but not until 2038.

In fact, critics said, the mayors’ predictions are wildly optimistic about what constitutes a “productive” green job and make unwarranted assumptions about how widely and quickly green technology will spread.

During the presidential race in 2008, green jobs figured prominently in the debate about the federal government’s response to the economic downturn and the Obama administration’s early response to the recession.

The Obama administration’s economic-recovery plan will spend more than $60 billion on clean-energy investments, including $600 million in green-job training programs ($100 million to expand line-worker training programs and $500 million for green work force training) and nearly $11 billion in spending to make federal, state and local agencies more energy efficient. However, it doesn’t estimate how many green jobs will be created by the spending. Overall, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is designed to create 3.5 million jobs.

Supporters such as the Environmental Defense Fund report that sustainable business practices are already having a tremendous effect on businesses. It has even mapped hundreds of businesses it calls the backbone of the green economy.

Skeptics point out how small those numbers are compared to the economy as a whole and cite costs that will slow green technology’s growth. The mayors’ conference counted a mere 750,000 green jobs in 2008 out of more than 135 million U.S. jobs counted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Few green opportunities

Recruiters don’t see the number of green jobs growing much in the next few years. So far, they have seen few new jobs that can be attributed specifically to either green technology or sustainable business practices, according to Daniel Casteel, managing director of the Nashville, Tenn. station of the Stanton Chase International executive-search firm.

“There is a lot of retraining going on among executives,” Casteel said. “So far, we’re not seeing a lot (of job openings) specifically for sustainable or green technology. We need to answer those questions about where they’re going to be and what those titles will be, and how many of them (will exist).”

Some companies jump into what environmental groups classify as sustainable practices for their own reasons – to save money on energy or materials or to promote the safety of their own products and reinforce their own safety procedures, Casteel said.

Others, especially outdoor-oriented companies, do it primarily as marketing – to please their green-friendly customer base, he said.

That has made the title “chief sustainability officer” increasingly popular, especially in large, global companies, but has not, so far at least, meant any real growth in the number of “green” jobs those companies are trying to fill. The chief sustainability officer is a corporate officer who manages and enforces resource and emissions standards companywide.

“Anecdotally, we see a lot of activity, but it’s still very unformed,” Casteel said. “CEOs want people who can see around corners: people who can move up in organizations; look three to five years out; and steer the organization, through both formal and informal channels, to put sustainability in the way of the senior leadership without leadership having to do the research themselves.”

What is a green job? What is a green company?

Much of the disconnect between the promise of green jobs and the reality lies in how you define a green job, said Jennifer M. Cleary of the The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, University. Most that qualify are ordinary jobs with “green” responsibilities thrown in, and many cross departmental barriers, blurring areas of responsibility and possibly leading to miscounts of the jobs available.

Among executive jobs that are 100 percent green, Cleary lists those responsible for carbon trading – buying and selling carbon credits that would dictate the amount of carbon emissions a company is permitted by law – but lists most others under administration, IT, finance, sales, marketing and other categories.

“Even establishing an institute to teach it as part of graduate business training is kind of like establishing one to teach about settling the West before settlement had really begun,” he said. “We have an idea you’ll need a wagon like a Conestoga, and some directions on which way to go, and we have a book on how to build a cabin on the prairie, but we haven’t anticipated Indian raids and the impact on Native Americans and the potential for the buffalo for being killed off. We just can’t anticipate those things yet.”

Where are the green jobs?

There is a lot of hiring among green companies, those devoted to green causes, green technology or promoting sustainable business practices, Galbreath said. Those businesses – startups in wind, solar and electrical power, or in recycling for profit and other green approaches – are looking for innovators, entrepreneurs, evangelists and engineers, Galbreath said. They’re hiring huge percentages of their existing work force, but they’re each so small that the number of new full-time positions is negligible, and probably will be for some time.

And how many of those jobs are actually green, meaning they require new green skills and training in sustainable practices? After all, an accountant at a wind farm is no different from an accountant at a shoe manufacturer.

Furthermore, those companies are hiring few people so far, Casteel said. Indeed, their numbers may actually decrease, other observers said, as alternative-fuel and energy companies acquire one another. The number of acquisitions in the alternative-energy business increased 45 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to a 2008 report from business consultancy KPMG International. Almost two-thirds of executives surveyed expected to see continued increases in mergers and acquisitions; one-third expected to buy another company themselves by 2010.

At most companies that aren’t focused solely on sustainability, the green jobs are limited to the “C suite.” DuPont hired former EPA deputy administrator Linda J. Fisher to the post of vice president and chief sustainability officer in 2004. Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Timberland, General Motors, Owens-Corning and most recently AT&T also have created or expanded executive roles to give themselves a chief sustainability officer.

Companies that do hire chief sustainability officers tend to split into those who are serious about sustainability and those who want to be able to show potential investors a list of executive titles with “sustainability” listed prominently, Galbreath said.

But it’s not entirely clear how substantive these jobs are or how many subsequent jobs they will lead to, Galbreath said. At most U.S. companies, green initiatives will mean only one or two full-time employees, he said.

One of the greatest growth industries may be in business education about sustainability, according to Galbreath. There are “40 or 50” colleges and universities offering degrees or serious coursework on sustainability that goes beyond traditional environmental science or engineering. Most of them focus more on social responsibility than business, however – another sign that “green” isn’t yet ripe enough to grow a significant number of jobs.

Green for green’s sake

For most U.S. workers, green won’t require new training and won’t lead to new jobs. It will just be a new aspect of work, like Human Resources rules to which every manager must adhere, and not a primary job.

“If you want to work in sustainability within a corporation, you still have to have a skill that is fundamental to the economy,” Galbreath said. “You have to marry it to accounting or architecture or product design or manufacturing or real estate or development and construction – something that has been sustainable as a business in itself across modern history. ”

In the longer term – 10 to 15 years – it’s more likely that sustainability will be just one more concern to every executive and not comprise a new class of green worker, he said.