Green Job Search

The small town of Clifton Forge, Virginia, lies just west of the Shenandoah Valley, where Interstate 64 starts to climb into the Allegheny Mountains. Historically, the area's been dominated by the pulp and paper industry, but it and other blue-collar job sources, like a furniture maker and a plant that built interior doors for Ford Explorers, have withered or disappeared completely. That's one of the reasons Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, near the West Virginia border, applied for stimulus grants to start a green-jobs training program.

The community college's continuing-education director, Earl Dodrill, a white-haired, mustachioed graduate of the school himself, thought he should get ahead of the curve. There weren't many wind-technician training programs in the mid-Atlantic region, and he knew that once wind farms sprang up along the East Coast, they would need technicians. Federal and state grants paid for a lab that includes hydraulic- and electronic-systems simulators, a replica of an assembly line, and a donated wind turbine. Grants also paid for tuition for the program's first students, and stimulus money will pay for the instructors for three years.

The school thought eight to 10 students would enroll the first year, which began in August; three times that number signed up, 29 men and one woman. To qualify for stimulus money, Lancaster had to demonstrate that it had partnerships with employers who could provide internships and job interviews for its students -- something easier said than done. Virginia doesn't have a single wind farm. A Harrisonburg-based company, Highland New Wind Development, has had a permit to build a farm since August 2009, but construction has stalled. Tal McBride, who owns the company with his father, projects he will need 10 to 12 technicians to maintain the farm once it's operational but is unsure when that will be. "The worst economy of my lifetime has caused the entire wind industry to grind to a comparative halt," McBride says. "That, in combination with uncertain federal energy policy, has caused wind-turbine manufacturers, electrical infrastructure suppliers, and logistics, transportation, and construction companies to hunker down and wait for the economic circumstances to improve."

The $500 million for green jobs provided by the stimulus, along with a host of state grants, is going to training programs, but not enough financing is going to the struggling companies that will one day employ the graduates of those programs. Of the oft-cited $90 billion in the Recovery Act devoted to "clean energy," less than a third went directly to renewable-energy generation. And solar and wind projects had to split that amount with more established and less environmentally friendly industries like hydropower and biofuels. Much of the direct grant money for non-research projects comes from a program scheduled to end in January that allows companies to trade future tax credits for cash now.

The unfulfilled promise of stable, well-paying green jobs is probably best represented by the wind turbine: The United States has the capacity to both build the turbines in unused factories and get as much as 30 percent of our power from wind -- but we aren't doing either. Yet a wind turbine graces the cover of nearly every think-tank report on green jobs, and it's a favorite prop of politicians who want to convince Americans that they're ready to redeploy a beaten-down workforce into a new, exciting field of the future. Lawmakers and eternally hopeful progressives herald the green sector as the new source for working-class stability: jobs that can't be outsourced and are relatively recession-proof.

Try telling this to Chris Ford, a 39-year-old student in Lancaster Community College's green-jobs program. He sold flooring material to builders in the area until he lost all his customers in the housing bust. Then he tried to find work as a salesman for a local solar-panel-installation company, but there weren't enough customers to justify his hire. When he heard about the wind-technician training program, he thought a certificate would brighten his job prospects. Ford wants to stay in the area after he graduates -- he has a 10-year-old daughter -- but he might not have a choice about moving out West, where the wind industry is more established. "I'm not going to go through all this and not take a job," he says.


Ford's bleak job prospects are in stark contrast to how the program was sold to him -- and to the rest of America. Obama presented "greening the economy" as a multifaceted solution to a host of major problems -- a way to halt the decline of the American manufacturing sector, provide a new pathway into the middle class for workers without a bachelor's degree, foster energy independence, and end our pollution-based economy. While there were many different types of jobs promoted -- construction jobs that would make homes more energy efficient, jobs for those who would install renewable-energy systems, technicians to repair those systems -- the primary selling point was new manufacturing jobs that would rebuild the decimated Rust Belt. Obama gave a speech at a wind-turbine plant in Iowa last year, declaring that "just a few short years ago, this facility sat dark and quiet. Today, it's alive and humming with more than 600 employees, almost two-thirds of whom found themselves unemployed before landing here." Indeed, it was an encouraging story. But a week before, on Earth Day, Obama had visited another wind-turbine plant in Iowa that employs about 100 people. Compare that to peak employment in their former iterations; the two plants collectively had more than 2,000 workers.

Spurred by success stories and considerable grant money, community colleges across the country have opened or expanded certificate programs for various green jobs. Julian Alssid, executive director of the Workforce Strategy Center, says there are more than 1,000 community colleges in the country, and it's a safe bet that nearly all of them have or are planning to have some sort of green-training curriculum. That doesn't count nonprofit, community-based workforce-development programs and those at for-profit colleges, which all want to ride the green-jobs wave touted by politicians. Alssid, though, says few schools have tried to ascertain the need for these workers: "There was a lot of scrambling around to access this money, but, given the lack of demand and given a lack of standards for training, it's made it really difficult for colleges to do this according to what we'd see as the best practice."

Training programs have had trouble building strong relationships with industry partners because many of those companies are struggling themselves. Investors aren't taking many risks right now, which means they're averse to the still-emerging alternative-energy sector. The American Wind Energy Association says the industry as a whole lost about 1,500 manufacturing jobs last year, leaving the number of manufacturing jobs at 18,500. Turbine installations are dropping, too, and the industry projects they will return to 2007 levels by the end of the year. That means the 40 or so facilities that produce primary turbine parts, like blades or towers, are operating below capacity, and there will be less demand for wind technicians in the near future because there will be fewer turbines for them to work on. The picture gets even bleaker when you consider that 2009 was a better year for the wind industry than it would have been otherwise because of the $28 billion the stimulus bill devoted directly to clean energy.

The major source of the financing problem, however, isn't the recession. It's that the fossil fuels America depends on are still incredibly cheap, and no one wants to see energy prices rise. Alternative-energy industries are marketed as rapidly growing, but in fact, they've stayed incredibly small. We get less than 5 percent of our energy from renewable sources. (Even the solar industry, which is on track to have a better year than the wind industry and to double its capacity by the end of 2010, will only be generating enough power for 200,000 homes.) Training skilled workers is the green industry's way of addressing the supply side of the equation, but there's still not enough demand. It also doesn't look like would-be investors in the United States will be getting a stable consumer market for green energy anytime soon.

The wind and solar industries have been on a dramatic boom-and-bust cycle for the past decade, and many Americans had hoped the Obama administration would finally create the political will to pass climate-change legislation or strong carbon regulations. However, the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill, which would have created a market-based, cap-and-trade limit on carbon emissions as well as steady funding for alternative-energy programs, didn't even come up for a vote before the midterm elections. The administration has achieved only piecemeal victories such as tax credits for companies and individuals who switch to renewable energy. Many of those are extensions of programs that already existed: Tax credits for companies that produce wind energy were established in 1992, and Jimmy Carter was the first president to focus on developing solar panels for individuals' use -- he even installed solar panels on the White House. (The panels were removed by his successors and only recently brought back by Obama.) Fossil fuels are still cheaper than alternative-energy sources, and the government continues to heavily subsidize the oil industry. According to a Congressional Budget Office report from 2005, oil companies are eligible for so many tax breaks that they pay an effective tax rate of only 9 percent. The coal industry got about $17 billion in subsidies between 2002 and 2008.

Though politicians who pledge their support for green jobs rarely mention it, carbon regulation and significant investment from the government is what allows green energy to prosper. In much of Europe, more aggressive regulation policies will push many countries beyond the 40 percent-renewable threshold in the next few years. China has already leapt ahead of the rest of the G-20 in investment: From 2005 to 2009 it spent $35 billion on clean energy, nearly double what the United States spent in that same period. During that time, China built a strong export market, and its domestic market is currently growing, too, thanks to recently tightened renewable-energy standards.

America is falling behind. Of the eight important clean-energy policies the Pew Charitable Trusts laid out in a recent report, the United States only had three. Only one American company, General Electric, is among the top 10 global leaders in wind-turbine manufacturing. Of the few high-profile manufacturing plants that have opened in the past few years, like Gamesa in Pennsylvania, many are foreign companies. Only about half the wind-turbine parts installed in America are manufactured here, according to the American Wind Energy Association, which means that even the few customers who buy alternative-energy systems aren't supporting as many domestic jobs as they could be.

The problems extend to non-manufacturing green jobs, like those in energy efficiency. The stimulus package provided funding for weatherizing homes in low-income housing developments around the country. As with many other jobs created by the stimulus, they were not new but preserved -- positions that could be filled by builders and construction workers who otherwise might have been laid off after the decline in new home construction. According to a Government Accountability Office report in May, states were reluctant to hire workers they might have to lay off down the road, which meant weatherization efforts were slow to get off the ground. Some of the Department of Energy grants are set aside for cities to spur a private market for individual homeowners to invest in energy efficiency -- an effort that would be more likely to succeed if fossil fuels were more expensive. As we've seen in Europe, it's easier to compel consumers to save money if there's a great deal of money to be saved.

Even a modest national renewable-energy standard seems politically impossible. In September, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat from New Mexico, proposed a measure requiring that 15 percent of all U.S. power come from renewable sources by 2021, but there was no real move to pass it. Even this modest bill is at risk of being watered down: Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has proposed expanding the definition of renewable sources to include nuclear and "clean coal" power, which won't help the fledgling wind and solar industries. America's cheap natural-gas resources further complicate the picture of switching to renewable energy.

Some states have passed strong renewable -- energy standards and carbon-regulation policies, and some, like California, even have caps on emissions; the state plans to cut its emissions 25 percent by 2020. Unsurprisingly, these states lead the nation in green-job creation. Still, those jobs account for less than 1 percent of the states' economies. In the recession, existing state efforts are vulnerable. Oil and gas industries have used fear about the economy to try to overturn California's carbon cap.

Other states -- including the ones that would benefit most from new jobs -- have been slower to take up the effort. Michigan, where in 2008 Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed a bill requiring utilities to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015, is a good case study in whether tackling the demand side of the problem will make a difference. With the automotive industry's decline and unemployment at 13 percent, the state has a large, untapped workforce and an idle manufacturing infrastructure. It also has a huge potential for wind energy along the Great Lakes.

When the renewable-energy standards take effect, Michigan's green sector might expand. It could be too late, though, for Darryl Tietz, a 55-year-old who worked for 27 years as a tooling engineer for a company that made parts for the Big Three auto manufacturers. The plant near his home in Hastings, Michigan, closed in 2001, but the company maintained plants in Canada and Mexico. Tietz was eligible for North American Free Trade Agreement retraining funds, which he used to get a business degree at Siena Heights University, planning to work in alternative energy. He apprenticed with a master installer at Basic Solar and Renewables and took over the company in 2006. Tietz services residential wind, thermal, and electrical systems for roughly 4,000 customers. About 100 to 150 systems break down a year, and that's how he earns most of his money.

The oldest system Tietz has ever worked on was bought by a retired Air Force colonel in 1956 for about $900. In 1985, the colonel, who lives in Battle Creek, figured out that the solar water-heating system had saved him $40,000. Tietz says his only reliable customers are people like the colonel who care about the environment and can wait 30 years to tote up the savings. "What we in the industry call these folks are 'environmental entrepreneurs'; they have the money, they're not the type of folks that need to go to the bank and sign their homes away in order to put that system in," he says. "Those are the only type of people right now that are spending the money. Those who have it and don't miss it when it's gone."

Just as Congress can't muster the political will to pass energy policy with short-term drawbacks and long-term rewards, individuals don't want to invest money they don't have for the promise of future savings. Policies encouraging people to cut their energy consumption today -- like feed-in tariffs used in Germany and elsewhere in Europe that allow utility companies to pay customers for the energy they save using personal solar and wind systems -- would create more incentives for broad adoption. Tietz's best year in sales was a mere $104,000, and his take-home pay has been about a quarter of what it was in his old manufacturing job. He says he only has a few more years of trying before he'll have to give up. Tietz wishes politicians would get the message that they can't promise green jobs if they aren't willing to push for an aggressive national renewable-energy standard that would make his industry viable. "They need to stimulate the market for these products before they worry about how many companies are making them," he says. "It's a whole lot easier to pull that cart than to push it."

Meanwhile, more and more programs in Michigan are pumping workers out into a job market that isn't quite ready for them. "I can't tell you how many calls I get on a routine basis, every day of every week, from people who have been through training looking for jobs, and I don't know what to tell them," he says. "I wish I could give these people some work."


It's not just politicians who are enamored of green jobs. They also provide a crucial nexus for the progressive movement. Unions and environmental groups came together to support the Kerry-Lieberman bill, which gave unions what they wanted, like income support for working-class families faced with higher energy bills, in exchange for slowly unwinding industries like coal. Environmentalists needed unions because they have more sway in Congress, and the jobs message was meant to mute attacks that environmental legislation is bad for the economy. However, while "greening" the economy has always been the progressive solution to many problems, each group has always had slightly different interests.

When the labor and environmental leaders first started working together, says Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Council, they had a discussion about whether the idea of green jobs was going to take hold with the public: "I said, 'I just love the branding you've done; I think this green-jobs stuff really makes sense. It's too bad it doesn't mean a damn thing to any working person in this country.'" Michael Wessel, who advises the steelworkers' union, says that the bad economy provided an opportunity to use job creation as an argument for climate legislation but also exacerbated the strains in the labor-environmental alliance. "When it's a question of putting food on the table and keeping the roof over your head or hoping you can reduce the threat of global warming 50 years from now, people are going to worry about here and now and kitchen-table economics," he says.

Rank-and-file members of most unions want good jobs with a future, and whether those jobs are green is something of a secondary concern. John Balazek, a member of a D.C.-area chapter of the Sheet Metal Workers International Association, supports building more nuclear-power plants because it's something that can be done now, when his fellow members need work the most. Balazek doesn't buy that wind-turbine plants will employ a significant number of Americans any time soon. "If we could wave a magic wand, that would be wonderful," he says.

The scope of the Kerry-Lieberman bill -- which would have not only funded isolated job-training programs but actually have begun to alter the economic fundamentals that prevent America from going green -- was both its crowning feature and its death knell. There's no doubt, even among some true believers, that a comprehensive climate bill doesn't stand a chance in the near future, either. "Republicans have just come out and said they're not going to go for it," says Joan Fitzgerald, director of the Law, Policy and Society program at Northeastern University.

In a lame-duck session, Baugh says, lawmakers might be able to go back to individual pieces of the climate bill and pass some elements that would improve the market for green energy. But we have already tried -- and failed -- to attack the problem with piecemeal legislation. Breaking up the bill also starts to fracture the progressive coalition very quickly. Even unions within the AFL-CIO, Baugh says, don't unanimously support a national renewable-energy standard.

Fitzgerald says the next focus among those working on climate-change policy is getting the business community on board. It's hard, though, to see this coalition expanding, let alone coming up with legislation that would please all of its constituent groups and still have a big impact on the environment. Even a fragile alliance of progressive groups didn't translate into the kind of aggressive, nationwide plan that would create jobs and reduce our contribution to global warming. "The more research we do," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Environment Group Climate and Energy Program, "the more confident I am that the United States is just letting a huge opportunity slip away."

That hasn't stopped politicians from heralding the era of green jobs. In a last-ditch effort to save her senatorial career, Blanche Lincoln, the centrist Democrat from Arkansas who became the scourge of progressives during Obama's first two years, attended a groundbreaking for a wind-turbine plant in Fort Smith, the state's second-largest city. The Japanese company, Mitsubishi Power Systems, was lured in part by stimulus funds and says it could employ more than 300 people once it's up and running. But Lincoln, who praised the plant as a job creator, has criticized the climate bill as economically damaging and says she believes renewable-energy standards should include nuclear and hydropower. She is just one of many national politicians who claim to support green jobs but oppose the measures required for the industry's broad and sustained growth.

"There was this vision of the phoenix rising from the ashes from the old, larger carbon-footprint economy," says Sarah White, who works on sustainable-workforce and clean-energy policy at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. "The goal is not wrong, but it's a lot harder to get there than people imagine."

You may also like