Green Jobs Picture Mostly Shades of Gray

Published May 1, 2009

“Green jobs” have been touted as the silver bullet for the nation’s growing unemployment problem, jolting the economy out of recession, ridding dependence on foreign oil, and making the environment cleaner.

It’s an enticing solution to cure much of what ails our country today.

Unfortunately, such initiatives are often too good to be true, which requires a look into the underlying reality of the green jobs plan.

Ambiguous Standards

First, what defines a green job remains vague. No one agrees on a definition—in fact, there is an overabundance of definitions.

The term is widely taken to mean any position not related to the production of fossil fuels or one benefitting environmental quality. Currently, however, a green job is whatever anyone says it is. An unambiguous definition of what constitutes a green job is needed to alleviate uncertainty and confusion about proposals to create more of them.

Second, there are no industry standards or metrics in place to classify or measure green jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have an exclusive green job category and therefore does not identify or enumerate these jobs, which makes it impossible to collect, analyze, or publish definitive employment and wage data on green jobs.

Likewise, the North American Industry Classification System does not define occupational titles or industries as green, and according to the American National Standards Institute there are no developers working on standardizing definitions of green jobs.

Economists say the biggest indicator of whether the $787 billion stimulus bill—portrayed as a green jobs creator—is working will be an improvement in the jobs picture. But without a definition, industry standards, and metrics by which to measure green job creation, there is no way to know whether the green jobs plan is successful.

Red Tape Stalls Green Jobs

Even with a green-collar workforce primed and ready to go, the green energy projects in which to employ these workers will have a hard time getting off the ground given the environmental permitting process and NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) mentality that exists today.

For example, just in the past few years more than 65 renewable energy projects have been stalled, blocked, litigated, or canceled because of regulatory obstacles and NIMBY opposition. In addition, the transmission lines needed to transport renewable energy face the same challenges, with the average transmission project reportedly taking anywhere from five to 12 years until completion.

These facts signal trouble ahead for the stimulus plan as Congress and the president hope to double the nation’s supply of renewable energy in the next three years and lay down thousands of miles of power lines across the country to carry that energy.

To deploy green-collar jobs and increase renewable energy projects, the government must define the term promised to stimulate the nation, and it must remove the regulatory obstacles and obstructionism impeding renewable energy entrepreneurship and development.

Until then, green energy projects will get a red light, leaving green jobs plans doomed to failure.

William L. Kovacs ([email protected]) is vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Environment, Technology & Regulatory Affairs Division.