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Rise of the green collar worker (I)

In the US, Europe and even China, labor classes can no longer be reduced to just blue collar (industrial) and white collar (qualified).

There’s a new type of professional: the green collar worker. And it’s not just a niche economy. It has caught the eye of MBA programs, politicians and a New York Times columnist who calls it the answer to keeping America competitive.

As the demand grows for everything green- from more efficient homes and packaging to roofs created from photovoltaics or vegetation to electric, hydrogen or hybrid cars- there is a growing need for workers to design, engineer, construct, install and repair these products and services.

A growing green economy

The concept of a “green job” is not easily quantifiable, but there’s no doubt that the green economy is growing. In Silicon Valley alone, according to a new report from the SolarTech organization, jobs in the solar industry are growing at 35-40% per year in this part of the country.

In Massachusetts, the renewable-energy industry is about to become the 10th largest job sector, surpassing the state’s textile industry. According to an August of 2007 report by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, “surveyed executives expect 30% job growth in renewable energy firms and 25% for energy efficiency firms over the next year.”

Nationwide, Kevin Doyle, president of Boston-based consulting company Green Economy, estimates that green businesses have been growing annually at 5% during the past three years and that the total green labor force in the U.S. for 2005 is about 1.6 million people.

The “coolest” way to work

Now that the price of gasoline, the effects of Hurricane Katrina and the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, have made green the most fashionable color in the U.S., green collar executives have achieved front page status, and are setting the tone for a new way to work.

  • Inc., a magazine targeted at executives and entrepreneurs, chose for their July 1, 2006 cover the founder of Terracycle (the subject of one of our recent articles), whose business model isn’t the “start-up” of the nineties: this is a business that produces organic plant fertilizer by allowing worms to process organic waste from university dining halls delivered to the consumer in recycled PET soda bottles. It’s product may be worm poop, but it’s still The Coolest Little Start-up In America, according to Inc.‘s title.
  • Fortune, America’s 2nd oldest business magazine (founded in 1930 by Henry Luce), dedicated the cover of the April 2007 issue to a smiling Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, accompanied by the title, The Coolest Company on the Planet, referring to the principles of sustainability and responsible production that the firm has practiced since it’s founding over a decade ago in Ventura, California.

It’s not just about new products, like worm poop to recycled long underwear, but about a new type of corporate social responsibility that is turning more collars green.

Or the mantra, from ecologist and Sierra Club legendary director David Brower, posted at Patagonia’s headquarters: “There is no business to be done on a dead planet.”

The Green Road Less Traveled

This trend isn’t just for true environmentalists, but the titans of industry have also adjusted their business practices to some shade of green.

From Wal-Mart’s sustainability pledge (as we discuss in a profile article, they’re now selling organic food and clothes and have promised to cut energy use and produce zero waste, but they’re still coming up short on labor issues) to the famously conservative Rupert Murdoch’s vow to take News Corp carbon neutral in just 4 years (as I discussed in a recent blog post) to the mainstreaming of fairtrade coffee (now sold by the likes or McDonalds (UK) and Dunkin’ Donuts, as detailed in the faircompanies article Fair Trade Coffee 2.0 to the cleantech and green building booms, consumer and investor demand for sustainable products, services and companies has made going green no longer a moral issue, but an economic one.

This shift in priorities has created a new job market, which New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his editorial from July 15, 2007, The Green Road Less Traveled, deems a source of opportunity for the American economic future: “a fundamental truth about green technology: you can’t make a product greener, whether it’s a car, a refrigerator or a traffic system, without making it smarter — smarter materials, smarter software or smarter design… it means that to the extent that we make ‘green’ standards part of everything we design and manufacture, we create ‘green collar’ jobs that are much more difficult to outsource.”

Up to 20,000 more solar workers needed in just Silicon Valley

For an example of just how fast things are moving, take the solar industry. According to the report from the SolarTech organization, Silicon Valley alone will need between 10,000 to 20,000 new workers to fill solar jobs in the next decade.

Like other states with strong rebate programs, growth is astronomical. In August of 2006, Schwarzenegger signed the Million Solar Roofs bill into law to help fund a million solar roofs in a decade and to turn California into “the Saudi Arabia of the sun.”

Yet while these jobs are accompanied by good salaries, currently there aren’t enough qualified workers to fill the positions. And the majority of them don’t require an engineering degree. According to SolarTech estimates, about 60% of the jobs will be in manufacturing and installation, 20% in sales and marketing, and 20% in engineering.

To prepare local workers for these thousands of positions, those at SolarTech propose working with “local educators [community colleges, adult education centers, trade schools and workforce investment boards] to define a curriculum and certification program for occupations unique to the solar industry, with an initial focus on solar system installers.”

Jeff Perlman, president and founder of the renewable energy consulting company Bright Power (and subject of a faircompanies profile video and interview), is currently studying a proposed technical training program for photovoltaic systems installation at the City University of New York and he says programs like this are fundamental to the success of the industry.

“It’s really important that we have these training programs because about 25 years ago there was a big push for solar energy during the Carter administration… but the industry wasn’t ready. There were installers that didn’t really know what they were doing… So this time around it’s really important that we have these trainings and certification programs so that when systems go in customers can be assured that they’re getting an installer that knows what they’re doing so that the systems are of quality.”

The Green Jobs Act

This lack of qualified workers is a national problem. Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and an advocate for national funding for worker training told National Public Radio’s Marketplace, “We’re gonna have a need for literally tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of new workers who can put up those solar panels, who can build those wind farms, who can weatherize buildings. And right now we don’t have a national strategy to train up those workers.”

In an attempt to close that gap on a national level, U.S. politicians are proposing federal funds to help train a new green workforce. In August of 2007, green jobs bills passed in both the House and the Senate.

Both the Senate’s Green Jobs Energy Amendment and the House’s Green Jobs Act of 2007, are committing funds ($40 million/year and $125 million total, respectively) to train workers for jobs in “the green collar sector”.

The House bill, introduced by Representatives Hilda Solis (D-CA) and John Tierney (D-MA), if passed into law it would:

  • Target areas of job shortage, such as energy efficient buildings and construction, renewable electric power, energy efficient vehicles, and biofuels development.
  • Identify and track the new jobs and skills needed to grow the renewable energy and energy efficiency industries.
  • Link green industry research and development to job standards and training curricula.
  • Give priority for these training programs to displaced workers, veterans, and at-risk youth.

The Senate’s version, sponsored by Senator and presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), focuses on training for jobs involving everything from the design to the maintenance of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

Senator Clinton describes the new jobs as an upside of the fight for the environment. “To attack global warming, we need to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. Deploying these technologies is a win-win that will reduce pollution and create new, good-paying jobs.”

Another presidential candidate, John Edwards, has made “green collar jobs” a campaign platform. Not only has he proposed to create over a million new jobs through his investments in a new energy future, but he promises that his “new Green Collar Jobs training plan will offer job training and placement for up to 150,000 workers a year”.

Green collar education

While the public sector talks about how to train this new workforce, the private sector has already begun. A recent survey of the most prestigious business schools in the world, carried out by the World Resources Institute, concluded that “an increasing number of schools surveyed (54% in 2005) require one or more courses in ethics, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, or business and society.” Many schools go much beyond this.

In 2003, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business opened their Center for Responsible Business to focus on corporate social responsibility. CSR is part of Yale and Stanford’s curriculum. Columbia Business School has a social enterprise program.

At places like the Presidio School of Management, Bainbridge Graduate Institute and New College, CSR and environmental values are part of the entire MBA curriculum.

Schools like Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina, the University of Denver and the University of Michigan offer joint M.B.A./environmental science masters degrees. Wharton offers an MBA major in environmental and risk management.

According to World Resource Institute president Jonathon Lash, the top international business schools are training the future green collar executives and workers by “providing students with the skills that are becoming increasingly valuable to the bottom line.

Such skills are needed to meet the emerging challenges of climate change, water scarcity, labor issues, and poverty alleviation with innovative technologies and entrepreneurship.”

The organization’s study entitled, Beyond Grey Pinstripes 2005 (a biennial survey) ranks business schools in function of their ability to educate their alumni in the issues of social and environmental stewardship. The ten best business schools in the world using these indicators, according to Beyond Grey Pinstripes, are:

  • Stanford (U.S.).
  • ESADE (Spain).
  • York Schulich (Canada).
  • ITESM-EGADE (Mexico).
  • Notre Dame Mendoza (U.S.).
  • George Washington (U.S.).
  • Michigan Ross (U.S.).
  • North Carolina Kenan-Flagler (U.S.).
  • Cornell Johnson (U.S.).
  • Wake Forest Babcock (U.S.).