We’ve written before about the benefits of green jobs, so you may be wondering, “How do I get one?”
It’s true the green jobs sector is growing, but there are also a few challenges that need to be overcome to accelerate growth.
It’s the Economy
In tough economic times there’s simply a lot less money to go around. That can be a particular challenge for many green businesses, like renewable energy, that require significant government incentives to compete today while gearing up for a greener future.
In shifting political sands government programs to help green businesses are subject to change or cancellation in the short term, which makes long-term institutional planning tough.
“Take the production tax credit, that naturally has an effect on the wind and solar industries moving them from boom to bust,” said David Foster, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to the green economy. The credit, which currently expires at the end of 2012, provides a 2.2 cent per kilowatt-hour for the first 10 operating years of a renewable plant’s lifetime. “We’re currently heading towards a bust cycle on wind because Congress has not be able to reauthorize the production tax credit.”
“It’s tough for businesses to formulate plans or chart how long it will take to recover costs when government’s position is uncertain on these kinds of measures,” Foster added, and that’s curbing growth in many green sectors, including transportation.
“They’ve been unable to reauthorize the surface transportation act for two years and put more money into refurbishing our transportation infrastructure,” Foster said. The Highway Bill, which funds the nation’s roadways, expired in 2009 and operates under temporary extensions, blocking long-term planning. “We need a long-term extension to green the transportation infrastructure but short-sighted government inaction on this issue and others has been a big problem,” he said.
Many of today’s consumers look to cut costs wherever possible. And many green products and services simply cost more upfront than the competition. That means people may buy less of them, which curbs growth and job creation among the companies that produce them.
Shoppers know that going green on many day-to-day purchases also results in a bit less green in their wallets. Organic foods cost more, green cleaning supplies from laundry to detergent to baby wipes tend to cost more. And while some people’s principles may preclude them from cutting costs by shifting to a slightly lighter shade of green consumption, many others decide that bottom-line concerns are, well, the bottom line. And nothing’s quite as green, environmentally or economically, as simply making due or repurposing something one already has—a practice that doesn’t help job growth.
The 2011 Green Brands Survey from the WPP communications services group surveyed more than 9,000 people in eight countries and found that while consumer interest in green products is expanding prices still drive product choice. In developed nations about 20 percent of respondents said they’d spend more than 10 percent more on a green product—meaning that some 80 percent of the market would not.
The green jobs movement has always had its skeptics, including those who suggest that investments in green energy simply aren’t cost-competitive. Spending money propping those industries up, goes a theory argued by libertarian Cato Institute scholars Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren and others, means higher electricity costs, fewer total jobs as established industries decline, and less money to be spent elsewhere—all of which they argue will produce a drag on the economy rather than a boost. (The report does not evaluate the environmental benefits of greener energy.)
Some consumers also remain skeptical about green products, doubting that environmentally responsible laundry detergent will get their clothes as clean as the old standbys, or that a new, energy efficient solar water heater can really keep their showers piping hot. Electric cars are viewed by some as futuristic at best, gimmicks at worst, even as the number of satisfied hybrid drivers on the roads increases each year.
Perceptions sometimes die hard and some green businesses must overcome a reluctance to believe that new, environmentally responsible ways of doing business can produce the same levels of quality to which people have become accustomed—while delivering economic gains as well.
Patience is a (Rare) Virtue
Some of the green economy’s major drivers, like renewable energy sources that can help ween us off fossil fuels, are bound to take time. The developed world’s energy infrastructure is largely built to transport and consume fossil fuels, not alternatives. And alternative energy and transportation technologies still have developmental technical hurdles to overcome, like battery and smart grid technologies that can make intermittent power producers like solar and wind deliver constant energy wherever and whenever it’s needed.
Consumers must also practice patience, particularly with big ticket items. Hybrid vehicles may cost $5,000 more than their counterparts, and more efficient appliances from furnaces to refrigerators also carry price premiums. Retrofitting a home to save energy costs money in the short run, rather than putting it in the homeowner’s pocket. Or course, many of these investments pay back not only the planet but their owners—in the form of cheaper operating costs that can make such investments pay for themselves over time. But earning those returns requires some patience.
In an era of high unemployment the idea of a worker shortage may seem strange, but some green businesses report that they are hampered by a lack of qualified employees, which may curb the growth of these industries. A McGraw-Hill Construction study suggests that the current downturn in the construction industry may temporarily mask a shortage of skilled green workers. Some 69 percent of the architects, engineers, and contractors surveyed expect skilled workforce shortages in the next three years.
They’ll be needed for LEED green building projects, the report adds, because 45 percent of all design and construction jobs are projected to be green (that is more than 50 percent constituted of LEED projects) during that same time period. Some alternative energy firms are also encountering a lack of engineers qualified for the new demands of producing power from renewable sources.
The more accurate way to frame this problem is not as a shortage of workers but, for some skill sets, a need for the training that can bring employees up to snuff. That dynamic makes this green job “challenge” a definite opportunity for both training institutions and workers eager to gain new skills for a growing green economy.
Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.