Are Green Jobs Just a Fairy Tale?

While listening to NPR today, I heard Joel Kotkin, New Geographer columnist for Forbes, talking about “sad sacks of the American economy” in a segment called The Worst Cities To Look For A Job. As if that weren’t attention-grabbing enough, during his interview Kotkin off-handedly uttered the words “fairy tale of green jobs”.  Being a big supporter of green jobs, this got me thinking.

I love the idea of an increasingly green economy churning out jobs in all shades of green. Whether from wind power, water power, solar energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, or even some yet unknown renewable source,  jobs from green business offer an exciting vision and an especially comforting idea in these unsettling economic times.

But is the prospect of a replenishing infusion of green jobs really something we can look forward to, or is it as Kotkin suggests just a lovely fairy tale?

What are green jobs?

Green jobs are part of a bigger picture that goes by many names: clean technology, clean tech or cleantech,  green tech or greentech, renewable energy, clean energy, green energy, green business, sustainable business, sustainable industry, alternative energy, etc. The basic idea is that jobs at all levels in the service sector and green tech manufacturing (as well as a few niche areas) will be created as these sectors grow in capability and popularity. But whatever you call it, what we really want to know is “Are there going to be enough quality jobs created to truly make a difference??”

What does Wall Street think?

In June 2008, I attended the Wall Street Renewable Energy Finance Forum at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, where renewable energy professionals and financiers met to discuss future prospects for renewable energy. Although there’s no denying subsequent events on Wall Street have colored the near-term picture, there’s also no question we’re at the beginning of a business growth cycle that some at the conference feel rivals the beginning of the industrial revolution, fueled (if I may use the word) by a groundswell of innovation and ever-improving technology.

Take solar energy for example. Not so long ago, solar panels such as those you see on rooftops were unable to absorb solar energy on cloudy days. Not so any more. In fact, some current technology even allows absorption while it’s raining! And those in the field say we are poised to see amazing improvements in engineering, efficiency and affordability over the next 5-10 years, paving the way for wide-scale implementation of solar energy in the not too distant future.

But there are jobs in the field right now…and I don’t have to turn to experts to learn that. A good friend of mine has a renewable energy business (with a large solar energy component) that keeps growing year after year, providing new jobs for installers and people to help run the business. And as I learned at the REFF conference, this is being replicated throughout the country. Right now. Without any of the investment already in the pipeline or the much larger amounts being planned for by people who see vast business opportunity in a green future.

Just how much can we expect from those green jobs?

Getting back to Kotkin’s words suggesting green jobs may just be a fairy tale, he is not alone in these thoughts. Not that more jobs won’t happen, but how many and how soon? Can they make up for all the jobs being lost through structural unemployment, as key industries undergo permanent change that may mean many jobs never come back? And is there a price to pay for green jobs?

Well…according to The “Green Jobs” Myth, (December 10, 2008 Wall Street Journal Europe), many Europeans, once a strong proponent of going green, are no longer believers.  And they raise some valid concerns. Along with regulations paving the way for a green economy, industries designated as polluters will face requirements that may result in lost jobs.

…if the money for those subsidies comes from higher energy taxes — and a cap and trade regime would amount to as much $1.2 trillion of new taxes — millions of jobs in carbon-using industry are also going to be lost.

In their paper Green Jobs Myths, academicians Andrew P. Morriss, William T. Bogart, and Andrew Dorchak would appear to support that position. (They also appear to be strong free market proponents who may in general view regulation as obstructive to free markets.)  As part of their objections, they argue we don’t yet have a solid definition of what green jobs are, many of them will be low-paying and not the type to stimulate true economic growth, and the forecast models being used are at best dubious.

While I don’t agree with their overall conclusion for many reasons, I do agree that most forecast models have assumptions that can render them dubious, as our crack economists have been proving of late. But dubious model or not, I’m pretty sure the story is not so black and white.

Painting a more balanced picture, Katie Fehrenbacher at earth2tech offers us this look at green tech: 10 Reasons To Celebrate/Grouse About Green Tech.

While she sees the smart grid coming as a good thing and venture investing holding fairly strong even in this weak economy, she warns the green tech revolution will probably be a very slow process. Unfortunately, I think she’s right about that – more of an evolution with growth spurts, I think. But in the meantime, even at a slower pace than I’d wish, green jobs continue to be created.

So where are all these green jobs coming from?

In her January 13, 2009 article Ten Best Green Jobs for the Next Decade, Anya Kamenetz provides us with a good list of green job categories and sustainability-focused career paths.

And in an April 17, 2009 piece, The Best Way To Create Green Jobs, Sramana Mitra discusses her thoughts about why the service sector and not manufacturing offer the best hope for job growth. Using examples similar to that of my friend’s alternative energy business, Mitra points to rapid growth for these customer-service based businesses. And she concludes:

It is a model that lets a relatively small number of high-powered technology innovators spawn thousands of small companies. In turn, these companies create jobs that don’t require highly skilled workers. Michigan auto workers, for instance, could be easily retrained for these jobs, helping them to reposition their careers.

While some people are concerned we won’t be creating enough highly-skilled jobs (I’m not sure what they call engineers, planners, management, etc.), I like that people can be readily retrained to fill the growing demand for these service jobs. And by the way…let’s not minimize the skill-level of people who do this work. I sure can’t do it.

So continuing on Mitra’s point…as green business grows, green jobs offer new career opportunities and a way to work our way out of a dependency on aging technology that simply can’t be sustained in the long run. Whether now or later, at some point we are gong to have to open up to clean tech and green jobs.  And for me, the sooner the better – even if we make some mistakes along the way.

What if you’re looking for green jobs right now?

Green jobs, whatever the eventual definition may be, are still just jobs.  So you can find them at non-profits, universities, environmental organizations, companies specializing in green tech or with renewable energy divisions, and even government. Many of these jobs will be listed in regular search engines or on a particular organization’s website. (One of my favorite sources for non-profit jobs is Idealist.)

And don’t forget the power of networking through people you know, people you’ve read about or found online, and people you meet while going to conferences such as the one I went to.

I also found a couple of websites specializing in green jobs:

Cleantech Industry Jobs (mostly senior level)

Green Dream Jobs (all job levels)

I’m sure there are other sites like these.  I’m also sure more sites and green job types will pop up day by day. Hmmm…makes me think of two new types of green jobs – people who work in green employment and the web developers who support them! 😉

Ronnie Ann

What are your thoughts? Do you believe in the power of green jobs or are they just a fairy tale? Can you think of some green jobs we don’t normally think about as being green?


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Thankyou for this very informative article regarding green jobs. I personally feel these ‘green jobs’ are not fairy tales but are infact quite real and necessary. Those in the clean tech and other such industries are vital in combating major environmental issues such as climate change. Obama’s been helping with his incentive to create more green jobs. Hopefully with his help and more positive blogs such as yours on the Internet, the myth of green jobs will be dismantled.

    As we teach at the University of Vermont’s Global Institute for Sustainability creating a positive, shared vision of the future is something folks can tap into, and move forward with crafting solutions in a creative, engaging way.

  2. I agree with you 100% Shirah. Thanks for the link, by the way. I’m enjoying checking it out. Would love to come up one day and have a chat. LOVE what you’re doing and the whole green tech/ clean tech movement. I think one day we’ll be surprised how many jobs are green. In fact, one day I predict they will just be called jobs. 😉

    Ronnie Ann

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