‘Green’ jobs bigger part of work landscape

A builder who performs home energy audits. An office manager who looks for ways to green the supply chain. An auto mechanic who fixes hybrid vehicles. And an electrical lineman who is working on the smart grid.

Those are all green jobs, said Jay Antle, executive director of Johnson County Community College’s Center for Sustainability.

Much has been said about President Barack Obama’s aim to create green jobs as part of the nation’s attempt to regain economic stability. And some of the debate has centered on what exactly those green jobs are.

“I think part of our problem and why our national debate is skewed is the way we define green jobs,” Antle said.

For Antle, the question shouldn’t be how to create more green jobs, but how to transform traditional jobs into green ones.

“The real energy is going to be: How do you green existing jobs and not just because of environmental concerns,” he said. “It’s really about making operations more efficient that will have positive environmental outcomes.”

Donna Ginther, director of Kansas University’s Center for Economic and Business Analysis, agrees it can be hard to define just exactly what a green job is. While it’s not working in a coal plant or building oil pipelines, it could include research that is being done at KU on alternative fuels and transportation.

“Anything related to bioenergy is a green job, anything related to energy conservation or sustainability would be a green job,” Ginther said. “But it is really difficult to get a precise definition on what we mean by green jobs.”

In 2010, the Kansas Department of Labor released a report that attempted to do just that. They placed green jobs into five categories:

  • Renewable energy

  • Energy efficiencies

  • Agriculture and natural conservation

  • Pollution prevention and

  • environmental cleanup

Clean transportation and fuels

The data, which was collected from nearly 3,000 employers in 2009, found that the state had 20,044 people employed in primary green jobs, which was about 1.5 percent of the workforce. Another 26,380 people were employed in secondary green jobs.

Those employers predicted that by 2012, there would be 30,236 primary green jobs. The biggest growth was anticipated in the renewable energy sector, where jobs were expected to increase by 121 percent. In the energy efficiency category, which had the most jobs, the number was anticipated to increase by 56.9 percent.

‘We are the solutions’

The report’s findings also echoed Antle’s observation that the majority of green jobs aren’t going to be the new ones created, for example, from manufacturing wind turbines or solar panels.

Among the occupations with the most green jobs were carpenters, heating, air-conditioning and refrigeration mechanics and installers, and landscaping and grounds workers.

One green business in Lawrence falls into the last category.Since high school, Troy Karlin, owner of All-N-1 Landscape, has been mowing lawns. When he graduated from KU in 2001, he turned his mowing services into a full-time business.

Over the years, Karlin’s philosophy on how to care for lawns changed as his concerns about the environment grew. He stopped using petrochemicals and began suggesting his clients incorporate items such as permeable pavements, rain barrels and edible foods into their outdoor space.

He eventually introduced a sustainable division to his company. In 2004, the company did its first green project, which was about one-eighth of 1 percent of the company’s total revenues.

Today, the sustainable division accounts for 16 to 20 percent of the revenues, and Karlin hopes to see it grow to about 32 percent next year. Since 2007, Karlin has upped his workforce by one employee annually to help with the work.

“As our sustainable division grows and our sustainable landscaping revenues grow, our green jobs grow,” Karlin said.

His advice is to not wait for the perfect green job.

“Everyone looks for the government and politicians to create these jobs out of thin air,” he said. “We are the solutions. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We have to get busy and solve them on our level in our world.”

Johnson County Community College is betting on a workforce that wants to acquire a green skill set. The college offers classes on sustainable agriculture, energy auditing and preparing for LEED certification.

Both Ginther and Antle don’t recommend that people limit themselves to looking for just green jobs. Instead, they recommended training for a career that could be tailored to green areas.

“Getting technical and analytical skills are the best bet for employment in the future,” Ginther said. “Some of those jobs may be green, some may not be.”

For Antle, green training helps give employees an edge in an increasingly competitive job market.

“I would argue that you need to define a solid career path that is going to be increasingly greening itself,” he said.

By Christine Metz

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