Thanks to the likes of former Vice President Al Gore, rapidly mobilizing consumers and the very real threat of legislation limiting carbon emissions, businesses are seeing the environmental benefit and the financial sense of giving a hoot.
It’s a green new world, and it needs employees—lots of them.
In the U.S., 5.3 million jobs have been created by environmental management and protection, according to a 2006 study by Management Information Services Inc., a Washington, D.C., research firm that has been tracking green jobs for two decades.
Those jobs include such titles as chief sustainability officer, solar-panel installer and software engineer, on top of more traditional environmental careers in wastewater treatment and hazardous materials management.
Those workers already make up a sizable part of the economy. The 5.3 million figure is almost half the number of people employed by hospitals, and nearly a third of the number in construction. It’s 10 times the number of jobs in the pharmaceutical industry.
By 2010, green employment is expected to reach 5.8 million jobs; by 2020, 6.9 million. Meanwhile, corresponding green-industry sales—including energy suppliers and consumer-products makers—are predicted to climb from $341 billion to $496 billion in 2020.
A green-collar town
In Chicago, the swelling ranks have inspired the creation of a green-jobs initiative, as well as new programs at area schools including Wilbur Wright College and the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"I have more internship and job opportunities than I have students to fill them," says George Nassos, director of the environmental management master’s program at the institute’s Stuart School of Business, which has been training students in pollution prevention and compliance since 1995 and sustainability since 1999.
"When we introduced sustainability to the curriculum, nobody cared," says Nassos, whose students find work in corporate environmental policy, consulting, health and safety, and with accounting and law firms that have sustainability practices. "But in the last six months, students are starting to get jobs because of that."
It’s the same story at Wilbur Wright, a community college that has offered an associate’s degree in environmental technology since 1994. In fall 2006, the college used a state grant to add an emphasis on building energy technology and sustainability, covering topics such as natural resource conservation and renewable heating sources.
Graduates now go on to work as chief building engineers, demolition supervisors, construction superintendents and building managers, or in trades such as carpentry and heavy equipment operation.
"Before we even finished the pilot, it had gotten so popular that we had to offer it again, not on scholarship but for tuition," program director Victoria Cooper says.
In September, Wilbur Wright joined a coalition of businesses, organizations and labor groups to form the Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative, which this summer will try to quantify Chicago’s green workforce, as well as assess job training programs and college curricula to see if the demand can be met.
"We’re asking, ‘Is this really a change in the economy?’ and ‘What are the job implications of that change?’ " says Ted Wysocki, CEO of the Local Economic and Employment Development Council, a jobs-creation group involved in the initiative.
As with a growing number of similar efforts nationwide, the Chicago group wants to know whether green jobs offer more—and better—opportunities for blue-collar workers.
Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State University, thinks they do.
Pinderhughes, who studies barriers to employment, has identified 22 economic sectors with green-collar opportunities, including food production (using organic agriculture), manufacturing (making energy-efficient and recycled products) and auto repair (servicing alternative-fuel vehicles).
She says green-collar jobs aren’t a rebranding of blue-collar trades. Rather, they are safer, typically higher-paying jobs that are "community-serving and meaningful, which resonates very deeply with people on the street."
In San Francisco, for example, a low-skilled worker doing food prep or grounds maintenance might make $21,000 a year. A similarly skilled solar installer or recycling worker can make $35,000.
Kevin Doyle, a consultant whose Boston business, Green Economy, advises companies and organizations on green-jobs development, says that even traditional manual-labor jobs—say, in construction or building maintenance—can be improved by adding green skills.
"In the process, workers will change how they measure success in their careers away from just earning a living, and toward building a more sustainable world," he says.