Understanding the green economy

New survey gives meaning to the jargon surrounding California’s environmental workforce

Research revealed: Learn more about the green jobs survey at www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov.

Used to be a “green” job was one that paid off in greenbacks. But now, when politicians like Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, environmentalists, futurists and business owners tout green jobs and a green economy, it means something entirely different. Problem is, no one’s sure exactly what.

The state of California is trying to change that. It’s now poring over the results of a survey completed in January of nearly 15,200 employers—representing about 12.6 million of California’s 14 million-person workforce—to ferret out a uniform definition of “green job.” There have been some surprising results.

Green jobs represent 3.8 percent of California’s total employment, according to preliminary results of the survey, which was conducted by the Employment Development Department. That’s nearly four times the 1.1 percent identified in a December 2009 study of the state’s green economy, which used 2008 employment numbers. Conducted by Next 10, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit, the study identified 160,000 green jobs in 2008. Using the state’s newer numbers, green jobs have risen to 532,000.

Almost two-thirds of employers told the state they use at least one green practice, such as recycling, improving energy efficiencies, water conservation or using more second-generation products.

“Any time you use more energy than needed per unit of economic productivity, or any time you produce more waste per unit of economic activity, you increase costs,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat and former chairwoman of the lower house’s Natural Resources Committee. “Of course, it’s good for the environment, but it’s totally good for the bottom line.”

The other thing the state discovered is that whatever a green job is, there are a lot of them scattered throughout California.

“One thing that distinguishes the green economy from either high-tech or biotech is that both high-tech and biotech tended to be regional economic engines,” said Victoria Bradshaw, Schwarzenegger’s Cabinet secretary for labor and workforce issues.

“That’s not the case with the clean-tech economy. Every region of the state is participating and leveraging their own natural assets to become a player,” she said.

Politicians like state Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are struggling to define “green jobs.”

At 87 percent, Sacramento was the statewide leader in green-job growth from 1995 to 2008, the period examined in the Next 10 study. Sacramento also had the highest growth in green jobs related to the air and environment, 157 percent.

But what exactly is a green job?

“They’re jobs involved in the production, distribution or delivery of products or services that pollute less, make less waste, use less fossil fuels, clean our air or water, or use more efficiently our energy and natural resources,” is Skinner’s working definition.

The state’s first stab at an official definition is similar, and plays off the word green. A green job produces goods or services that:

G: Generate and store renewable energy. R: Recycle existing materials. E: Expand energy efficiency through manufacturing, distributing, building and installing more efficient products and systems. E: Educate about the benefits of green. N: Nurture creation and use of natural and sustainable products and strategies.

Previously, most of the state’s knowledge about the green economy came secondhand, gleaned from databases of industries known to be green. Followed by some elementary deductive reasoning: If a company makes blades for wind turbines, its employees must be green.

What the survey reveals is that clean tech cuts across all sectors of the economy—sometimes in unexpected places.

A company not necessarily considered green often has green employees. Skinner cites Chevron Energy Solutions, which advises public- and private-sector entities: Chevron puts up the capital, does the work and is paid back through the savings generated by the reduced energy use.

In rural areas like the north coast, green jobs can take a different form. Fueled by investment by private landowners and federal and state dollars, thousands of jobs have been created restoring salmon habitat, said Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, an Arcata Democrat.

Uniform definition or not, the state sees a steady, rapid increase in green jobs. Says Bradshaw, “You’re seeing a conversion to green more rapidly than expected because there is a bottom-line impact.”

Whatever a green job is, the number of them is growing, and a big reason is greenbacks.