For green-collar workers, business is booming.
AS AN IDEALISTIC, freshly minted college graduate in the 1980s, Charlie Kuffner knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life: build solar-powered homes. The problem was, back then, there were few jobs available in solar power. So, after searching in vain for a while, Kuffner finally accepted that reality and started working in commercial construction. “I really went looking for a career building solar houses, but I couldn’t pay my rent,” he says. “I kept telling myself, ‘I’ll die a pauper if I keep this up.’ ”
Oh, how things have changed. Today, Kuffner is executive vice president of Swinerton, a San Francisco Bay Area–based contracting and construction-management company that has wholeheartedly embraced green building practices, including solar design. Indeed, just last year, the company ranked fourth in the nation in the amount of revenue it generated building green projects, bringing in $628 million, which was about 37 percent of Swinerton’s total revenue. Not only that, but today, Swinerton has a full-time sustainability manager, more than 150 employees who have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council, and a newly formed Green Consulting Services division. “It’s exciting for me personally to see that the green building movement has caught some traction,” says Kuffner.
It’s not just the construction industry that is going green. Across the economy -- in fields as diverse as agriculture, architecture, engineering, and design -- companies are looking for ways to mesh their quest for profits with caring for the planet. That evolution has a profound implication for job seekers, since businesses hoping to go green will need employees with the skills to help them get there. What that means, of course, is that eager young college graduates -- or those looking to make a midcareer transition, for that matter -- shouldn’t have to face the quandary Kuffner did in seeking a “green-collar” job.
The American Solar Energy Society estimates that there are 8.5 million jobs in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency alone, and says that 40 million new jobs could be created in those fields by 2030. Behind this growth is a tremendous amount of investment on the part of local, state, and federal governments, as well as by the private sector. Indeed, about half the states in this country have mandated that a certain percentage of their energy come from renewable sources, which has spawned an increase in the construction of wind farms and solar installations. Add to that the fact that venture capitalists are making big bets on green businesses -- to the tune of $2.2 billion for clean technology last year, up 47 percent from 2006, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers -- and it’s clear that there’s plenty of opportunity, even amid the current economic downturn.
ONE INDICATION of just how quickly the market for green jobs is maturing is the demand that Jill Bamburg has noticed for her school’s students. A cofounder and dean of the MBA program at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute -- a school founded in 2002 with the goal of producing MBA graduates who can either become eco-entrepreneurs or be integral players in helping an already established company become more environmentally and socially responsible -- Bamburg says that in the beginning, there were no jobs with the word sustainability in the title. “What we told our students was, ‘These positions will exist, but you are ahead of the market,’ ” she says. “But after five years, it’s unbelievable how many positions come through here that do have sustainability in the title. It’s taken off way faster than I thought it was going to.”
Although eco-jobs are increasingly available -- particularly in corporations, where the highest level executive position is sometimes known as chief green officer and involves making sure that a company follows through on its environmental commitments -- they’re by no means the only type of green employment. Given the boom in green construction, it is no shock that demand for skilled architects and designers has spiked. In 2002, for example, just 2,400 architects in the United States were LEED accredited; by last year, that number had swelled to 40,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that the need for environmental engineers -- who study the quality of soil, air, and groundwater and recommend ways to improve it -- will also increase, and that there will be 31 percent more jobs available in 2014 than there were in 2004. The number of environmental lawyers is also rising, with governments, nonprofits, and businesses all grappling with how to shape, enforce, and adhere to regulations around issues like pollution, land use, and others that impact the planet.
MOST OF THESE JOBS, obviously, are the types that require at least a bachelor’s degree and usually a master’s as well. While the emergence of such highly skilled jobs is a good indication of an increasingly vibrant green economy, there are many who see even greater promise for a green workforce in the manual labor that will need to be done to actually construct new green buildings, install solar panels, and build wind farms. Many believe that this work presents a unique opportunity to create middle-class career options that will offer high enough wages to raise a family, buy a home, and send kids to college for people, mostly in urban areas, who have been unemployed or underemployed. They say the creation of a whole class of green-collar jobs can lift people out of poverty and prevent more global warming.
“The climate crisis is of such a scale and magnitude that it affects all of us, and we all need to play our part,” says Ian Kim, director of the Ella Baker Center’s Green-Collar- Jobs Campaign in Oakland, California. “We need to install millions of solar panels and thousands of wind farms and change the way we shop, move around, and grow our food. That work is critical, so why not connect the work that most needs to be done to the people who most need the work?”
By helping to establish the Oakland Green Jobs Corps -- which provides young people from economically disadvantaged areas training, on-the-job apprenticeships, and, ultimately, employment with San Francisco Bay Area companies that are involved in the green economy -- the Ella Baker Center and its partners are doing just that. Oakland is hardly alone in pursuing the establishment of a vibrant green the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., more than 1,000 people from around the country attended a conference called the Dream Reborn to share ideas about ways to link environmental improvement and inner-city job creation.
There was certainly plenty to talk about, because, frankly, there’s so much going on around the country. In New York City, for instance, the organization Sustainable South Bronx trains workers to install roof gardens, which are a great benefit to the environment because they not only generate oxygen but also insulate buildings enough to significantly reduce energy bills. On the opposite coast, Los Angeles has embarked on an aggressive initiative to retrofit city buildings in order to make them far more energy efficient and, in the process, provide job opportunities and training for low-income residents.
ADVOCATES OF GREEN-COLLAR jobs understand that budding workers need training not only in the skills they will need on the job, but also, since many have little or no experience in a work setting, in what types of behavior will be expected of them when they’re there. The Oakland Green Jobs Corps plans to train 30 to 40 young people, and the first few months focus on job-readiness instruction, which teaches participants basic life skills such as the importance of showing up to work on time, dressing appropriately, and communicating well. Also included in the initial phase of training is education about the environment and why the work that the trainees are preparing to do really matters -- and not just to participants and their families but also to the earth as a whole. “They are part of a solution that is bigger than themselves,” says Kim.
The other component of the training is actually on the job with companies that have signed on to hire apprentices. Finding businesses that were willing to take new workers in the Bay Area was not a difficult task, largely because there is plenty of need there. Danny Kennedy, the president of Sungevity -- a company that aims to make solar power accessible to the majority of Americans by allowing people to find pricing information, determine energy and environmental savings, and even design and order solar systems online -- sees his demand for green-collar workers going up. “What we need are good guys who can do customer service with a smile and at the same time are willing to do some hard work -- carrying things up on ladders to the roof, effectively installing things on the roof -- following very specific training,” he says. “Those are trade skills and carpentry and electrical-wiring skills that really require a sophisticated understanding of the product and the grid and safety.”
Beyond the immediately practical reasons to have a trained, skilled workforce, employers also understand that having employees who are well paid is a way to expand their business. “I mean, Henry Ford nailed it when he paid workers on the line enough to buy the cars,” says Kennedy. “We need to take care of the workforce doing this work for all the right reasons in terms of equity, and also for the growth of the business.”
On a more spiritual level, Kim, at the Ella Baker Center, believes that connecting communities where opportunity is most needed with work that desperately needs to be done is part of an evolution in thinking that we all must make if the world is to avoid a future of profound social and environmental difficulties. “The mind-set that there is such a thing as a throwaway resource or a throwaway species is at root the same mind-set that there is a throwaway person or community,” he says. “Both have to change.”