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Sustainability | Ecotrope

What Is A "Green" Job?

This graphic illustrates the variety of industries that employ the 3 percent of jobs in Oregon that qualify as "green," according to a 2011 survey of 7,800 employers.

This graphic illustrates the variety of industries that employ the 3 percent of jobs in Oregon that qualify as "green," according to a 2011 survey of 7,800 employers.

I stopped into the Green Professionals Conference in Portland today. Organizers said there were 700 people registered to attend. Who are all these people who call themselves “green professionals”?

Until pretty recently, the term “green job” was largely undefined. What made a job green as opposed to any other color seemed to be in the eye of the beholder (I write about environmental issues. Is that green?). But in the past couple years, there’s been a push to define the term and figure out how it fits into the bigger employment picture. Maybe to change up the old arguments over trade-offs between growing the economy and protecting the environment?

This Bloomberg story made the point loud and clear last week: Environmental regulations don’t just kill jobs; they create jobs too. A 2002 Stanford University study found the Environmental Protection Agency created hundreds of clean air and water rules from 1984 to 1994 that wiped out 14,000 jobs in the paper, plastics, petroleum, iron and steel industries. But the same rules triggered spending that put more than 20,000 other people to work cleaning up contamination, making safer products and retrofitting old equipment.

Gail Krumenauer at the Oregon Employment Department said Oregon is one of the first states not only to define green jobs but also to start counting them. The agency conducted its second green jobs survey of 7,800 employers last year. The results show that Oregon has 43,148 green jobs – about 3 percent of all the jobs in Oregon. Oregon now defines a green job as one whose essential duties relate to providing a service or a product in:

  • Increasing energy efficiency
  • Producing renewable energy;
  • Preventing, reducing, or mitigating environmental degradation;
  • Cleaning up and restoring the natural environment; or
  • Providing education, consulting, policy promotion, accreditation, or other services supporting the above categories

What the Employment Department has found over the course of its research, Krumenauer said, is that green jobs are not their own industry. They’re spread out in little nooks and crannies of the state’s economy; but altogether, they make up about 3 percent of all the jobs in Oregon.

“You could be an architect in an office of ten architects, and you might be the only one who does LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design),” Krumenauer said. “So … you would be the one green job while everyone else would not be.”

One in four of Oregon’s green jobs is in construction, according to the state survey. But there are 185 different occupations in Oregon with at least one green job. The average hourly wage for a green professional is $23.07, a step above the overall state average of $19.83.

When the rest of the economy grows, green jobs tend to grow, too. When the economy falters, green jobs do too.

“They’re integrated into the rest of Oregon’s economy,” Krumenauer said. “Since its a relatively small piece of the overall work force, I think it tends to rise and fall along with Oregon’s economy as a whole.”

Krumenauer said she suspects the jobs are created by a change in customer demand or business practice. The survey didn’t ask employers whether the green jobs were directly tied to new regulations or government incentives, however.

A study by the Brookings Institute last summer tried to size up what it called the “clean economy.” By including traditional jobs in wastewater treatment and mass transit in the assessment, along with newer jobs in biofuels and renewables, the study found roughly 2.7 million workers had green jobs – more than the number employed in the fossil fuel industry.

It also found Oregon ranked second the nation in terms of the percentage of green jobs (3.4 percent) relative to overall employment. The top job creators in their analysis were conservation, organic food and farm production and mass transit.

Krumenauer said now the Bureau of Labor Statistics is doing its own nationwide survey, following in Oregon’s footsteps.

“We were leading the charge,” she said. “Now the feds are doing research for all states.”

I asked Krumenauer whether the state’s survey and reports on green jobs had an impact – perhaps even helping to create more green jobs?

“I don’t see this as a mechanism that has swayed anyone in one direction or another,” said Krumenauer. “What I do think it has done is is before this research people were talking about green jobs and had a lot of claims about green jobs. What we’ve been able to do is put solid foundations under those discussions.”

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