A central feature of President Obama's economic stimulus plan is the creation of energy efficient and environmentally friendly "green jobs." The law will boost energy cost savings and long term job growth through significant spending on Energy Efficiency (EE) and Renewable Energy (RE) development. Key appropriations include $5 billion for weatherization projects, $4 billion to retrofit public housing, $2.5 billion for energy efficiency research and $500 million for green job training.
The challenge for U.S. policy makers is to sort through all the confusion about "green jobs" and make investments that really pay off for the economy. Researchers at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University believe a top priority should be to identify the specific green job skills and occupations most likely to offer Americans meaningful, well-paying work.
One thing is clear: the vast majority of green jobs will require completely new skills. Rather, millions of workers in manufacturing, construction, and facilities management will need to add a layer of "green" skills requirements to their traditional education and training. Green job skills will cut across many industry sectors, and affect workers at all levels -- from clerks and truck drivers to engineers and scientists.
In the short run -- the next five years or so -- the greatest job growth will be in jobs which contribute to reducing energy consumption. While most media attention has focused on Renewable Energy sources such as solar power, wind and bio-fuels, there are far more opportunities for work involving Energy Efficiency and conservation.
In 2007, for example, an estimated 3.8 million Americans were employed in Energy Efficiency jobs compared to only 218,000 engaged in Renewable Energy jobs installing solar panels, constructing wind farms and the like.
The stimulus package programs that weatherize homes and buildings will boost EE related employment by creating several hundred thousand jobs. Residential work will employ laborers, carpenters, electricians, and others with advanced training. The commercial and industrial retrofit projects will also involve engineers and architects. State-level regulations and tax incentives will further stimulate demand for energy efficiency projects and workers to carry them out.
U.S. manufacturers stand to benefit from growth in both the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency sectors. Energy efficient retrofits of their older facilities will reduce operating costs. They can also take advantage of state and federal incentives to add RE/EE equipment to their current product lines.
Manufacturers should align their business strategies with state/federal investments, and train (or retrain) workers in the latest energy skills. These employers should form partnerships with local community colleges and Workforce Investment Boards to ensure a steady supply of workers who are prepared with high-demand EE and RE skills.
Manufacturers can also tap the talents of life cycle analysts who specialize in reducing the long-term environmental impact of products and packaging. Expect to see new combinations of skills emerge as technical workers strengthen their customer service skills while the sales staff begins to master technical details about alternative energy.
There is a danger that federal and state policymakers and educational institutions may not respond quickly to the specific skill needs of employers in the RE/EE sector. If so, thousands of potential green workers will not obtain the specialized training they need to fill new job openings.
Policy makers launching the green jobs revolution must therefore include employers, unions, and educational institutions as key stakeholders. Business-labor-education partnerships can help identify each industry sector's greatest hiring and training needs. They can also save the country considerable time and money by relying upon successful education and training programs that already exist.
Government agencies will need to collaborate in new ways. Regulators who have never worked together must develop an integrated strategy for bringing outdated education, energy, and worker training programs into the 21st Century. Every stakeholder -- from employers and unions to schools and Workforce Investment Boards -- must help rethink established skills and career paths.
Several states have already begun the process of integrating green jobs into their economic development strategies. Florida's Solar Energy Center offers a wide range of training in the renewable energy field, while Massachusetts auctions off carbon credits to fund job training through its Energy Efficiency Skills & Innovation Initiative. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine's Green Jobs Initiative offers incentives to spur job growth within the Energy Efficiency sector, and the Los Angeles Infrastructure & Sustainable Jobs Collaborative combines multiple funding streams to support a coordinated public-private strategy for training a green workforce.
In short, several states and communities have already developed successful green jobs strategies. If we learn from these examples, our environment, and millions of American workers will benefit.
Carl Van Horn, Ph.D. is professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey (www.heldrich.rutgers.edu).