Green Jobs Data in Catch-up Mode as Feds Pump Cash Into Energy

The issue of green jobs has risen once again to the top of the pile in Washington, D.C. in recent days: Most recently, the White House announced a plan on Wednesday to create “tens of thousands of jobs,” the Wall Street Journal reports, by providing $5 billion in tax credits for manufacturers of wind, solar electric vehicle and other cleantech products. This comes on the heels of President Obama highlighting in his jobs speech last week the potential of energy and efficiency projects to help improve unemployment figures.

In his memo yesterday on the “clean energy economy,” Vice President Biden touted the creation of thousands of jobs across the renewable energy sector as a result of Recovery Act investments. It makes sense for this issue to take center stage this month. Green jobs, after all, offer a timely three-fer: a way for the Obama administration to promote energy legislation at home, warm up for the climate negotiations in Copenhagen (where President Obama is scheduled to arrive on Friday) and show plan for addressing the country’s dismal 10 percent unemployment rate.

But the question of how to officially define, quantify and track green jobs remains open at a time when this data is needed most to inform policy decisions that will directly affect how the clean energy economy takes shape. Divisions over what role green jobs can and should play in kick-starting the economy are wide. As Popular Mechanics notes, “Proponents say these jobs will ease not only unemployment but also climate change and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Skeptics question the sustainability of green jobs and the government’s ability to identify game-changing technologies.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has requested $8 million in its 2010 budget to help bridge the divide with hard data next year, with the first data slated for publication in 2011. The idea, according to the agency, is to provide the answers to basic questions for policy analysis and planning of job training programs, such as: What education and training do green-collar jobs require? How many green jobs are there now and how many are being created? And what demand can we expect “for workers in the  green-collar occupations of the future?” And what exactly is a green job, anyway?

According to the Labor Department’s working definition, the term encompasses “products and services that increase the use of energy from renewable sources, increase energy efficiency, or protect, restore, or mitigate damage to the environment.”

But billions of dollars in stimulus funds have already been allocated for projects that are supposed to create green jobs, and the feds aren’t waiting for the Labor Department’s analysis or official definition to start crunching the numbers to justify the investments — and push for additional initiatives like the tax credit plan announced on Wednesday. In Biden’s energy memo this week, he cited some impressive-sounding figures:

“Recovery Act investments in renewable generation and advanced energy manufacturing of $23 billion will likely create 253,000 jobs and leverage over $43 billion in additional investment that could support up to 469,000 more jobs, putting us on track to meet the goal of doubling our renewable energy generation, including solar, wind and geothermal, in just 3 years.”

Those stats should be taken with a grain of salt, however. A year’s worth of employment counts as one job — so a position working on a three-year project counts as three jobs. And the reality of the “shovel ready” projects that much of the stimulus package was designed to help finance is that some jobs end once the shoveling is done. And as Rhone Resch, who heads up the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, pointed out Wednesday, jobs in the nascent renewable energy sector can be slippery at this stage, “moving fluidly between countries.” The U.S. solar industry, he notes, has seen jobs at older manufacturing plants go overseas, primarily to China, while adding other jobs related to newer technologies.

So at this point, green jobs advocates and policymakers have a fine line to walk. A growing green energy industry has real potential to put Americans to work, and thousands of people are already working on stimulus-funded energy projects. But touting the economic wonders of green jobs programs too much, too soon — or portraying environmental initiatives as job boosters when their near term net effect may be an employment decline — could spawn skepticism and hinder support for valid green programs down the road when more comprehensive data becomes available.

Green roof installation photo courtesy of Flickr user Greenforall.org

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