Engine of growth: clean-tech jobs

Clean energy work is a rapidly growing industry, but critics say it's no panacea for unemployment.

Dave Getzchman/special to the christian science monitor
Blue to Green: Angela Green lost her printing job, and is now project manager for Solar Richmond.
Dave Getzchman/special to the christian science monitor
On the edge: Barret Raferty, right, trains Angela Green to install solar panels in Richmond, Calif., Tuesday.

On the campaign trail and during Monday's debate, the Democratic presidential candidates touted "green-collar jobs" as a solution to unemployment. These are manual labor jobs within new clean-technology industries that the politicians say cannot be outsourced. Or, as former President Bill Clinton put it recently, to green a building "somebody's got to be standing on that roof."

Angela Greene is that person on the roof. After losing her job within the printing industry, she finds herself atop a home in Richmond, Calif., installing solar panels.

"I saw I would be able to make a stable income for myself," says Ms. Greene, "and at the same time be able to help my community and the environment."

Clean energy has become a $55-billion-a-year industry worldwide, and its rapid growth is fueling a shortage of workers in emerging hubs like California's Bay Area. Advocates for the poor say there's an opportunity here to rebuild an industrial base of well-paying, low-skilled jobs, but some critics question whether they are overstating the job potential of the sector.

"Nearly every city is vying to become a hub of clean technology or green-collar jobs. Every community college that has any budget to develop a new program is looking at a lot of these new technologies," says Joel Makower, executive editor of greenbiz.com in Oakland, Calif.

Germany's clean energy effort has resulted in 235,600 jobs in 2006. Convinced similar job creation can happen here, Congress last month authorized $125 million for green-collar job training.

The Democratic presidential candidates would go further:

•Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina wants to train and employ at least 150,000 workers a year in new green- energy related jobs.

Sen. Barack Obama would use some of the $150 billion generated over 10 years by a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse-gas emissions to fund green job-training programs.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has proposed $5 billion of spending on clean-technology investments as part of an economic stimulus package.

GOP contender Sen. John McCain also mentioned the need for job training in green technology.

Some critics are skeptical.

"The people who talk about green-collar jobs as the solution to low-skilled unemployment overestimate the number of jobs and underestimate the supply of labor," says Marcellus Andrews, an economist at Columbia University in New York.

Such jobs may be outsource proof, he says, but aren't immigration proof, meaning native workers could be displaced.

Advocates say they are focused on returning manual-labor jobs to inner cities and the heartland.

Twenty-two different sectors of the economy already involve green-collar jobs, according to a new study by Raquel Pinderhughes at San Francisco State University. Some examples include biodiesel vehicle repair, nontoxic printing, home weatherizing, and sustainable landscaping.

The study looked at green-collar jobs within Berkeley and found most paid good wages, offered benefits, and were open to workers with low skills and little experience. The average hourly wage for a green-collar worker in Berkeley is $15.80 an hour plus benefits – $4.00 more than the city's minimum "living wage."

Most employers face labor shortages and were willing to train workers on the job, the study found. A green-collar job summit last week in San Francisco revealed that California faces a shortage of solar panel installers and workers qualified for renewable power projects.

In Oakland, the mayor's office and community groups have partnered to train locals for green jobs. The city gave $250,000 to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights for a program linking green-job trainees with employers.

"As the green economy takes off, we have the opportunity from the beginning to lock in the people who have tended to be locked out of the workforce," says Ian Kim with the Ella Baker Center.

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