The term "green-collar jobs"—which Sightline coined in 1999—describes jobs dedicated to saving energy, producing renewable energy, or reducing pollution. Creating more of these jobs can speed progress on two deeply rooted problems at once: easing our dependence on climate-warming fossil fuels and fostering lasting, broadly shared economic prosperity. In other words, we can create good, local jobs in our communities at the same time we unhitch our families and the economy from the fossil fuel roller-coaster.
Indeed, green jobs represent a 3-in-1 promise—reviving the economy, creating jobs, and curbing the pollution that’s choking our atmosphere. The challenge facing Montana and the rest of the Northwest, a region singularly equipped to lead a clean-energy revolution, is to realize that promise. It won’t be easy.
Fully realizing the potential will demand coordination among programs and policies that have traditionally been disconnected. Fitting together all of the puzzle pieces—training workers, establishing meaningful career ladders, supporting clean-energy businesses, motivating home and business owners to make energy retrofits, and financing those energy-efficiency upgrades—will take more than scattershot solutions and piecemeal approaches. With local and state governments in the United States vying for federal funds and the jobs that will follow, Northwest communities gain a competitive advantage by starting now to advance the most creative, effective, and integrated solutions.
The jobs created from this new investment will put a skilled workforce that’s suffered the most during this recession back in the saddle: electricians installing energy-efficient lights, technicians and manufacturers making wind turbines, construction crews with caulk guns.
Our buildings, which account for nearly 40 percent of US energy consumption, are where the green jobs potential is most accessible. And it’s construction jobs—retrofitting and weatherizing—that can put local workers back on a payroll when they need it most.
These aren’t just any construction jobs. They’re paychecks with a purpose. Green-collar jobs have tremendous potential to shelter our region’s families and communities from an unstable economy. The global financial meltdown that began in 2008 revealed that the region’s economic pillars had been sunk into shaky ground, as Northwest employers laid off breadwinners by the thousands. In the construction industry, no class of workers—from laborers hauling supplies to architects designing buildings—was immune from pink slips. Fortunately, creating jobs that save energy in homes and businesses, or that produce homegrown renewable energy, will boost employment while cushioning our families and local businesses from volatile energy prices. All of that while protecting our climate.
Some green jobs are already here. Oregon is the Northwest’s leader for jobs in green businesses, with 1 percent of its workers employed by such firms in 2007, twice the national average (see Table 1). Alaska , Idaho , and Washington were also above average in such jobs, while Montana trailed.
Green-collar opportunities may be bigger now than they have ever been. A decade-long rise in energy prices, culminating in the severe gasoline price shocks of the summer of 2008, drove public concern about oil addiction and energy dependence to a level not seen since the oil shocks of the 1970s. And federal stimulus programs are directing billions of dollars to states and local communities to boost energy efficiency, upgrade the power grid, develop renewable energy, reduce pollution, and better steward our natural resources. Funding for low-income weatherization projects in Northwest states, for example, roughly doubled in 2009. And the US House of Representatives passed climate legislation in June 2009—now in the Senate—that could provide billions of additional dollars to efficiency programs, while supporting clean energy development.
Overall, the Northwest states are guaranteed more than $500 million in clean energy and green-collar job training investments under the federal stimulus package alone (see Figure 2). For Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, for example, stimulus provisions for weatherizing low-income homes alone will double, or in some cases triple, existing budgets. Federal climate policy currently before the Senate would invest similar amounts each year for decades.
Spending those funds wisely is essential. With the right training programs, weatherization and energy efficiency work can also put entry-level and low-income workers on the path to more prosperous careers. But those most in need of work may lack even basic skills. Using green-collar jobs to build a pathway out of poverty for disadvantaged workers requires a particularly focused effort.
Montana universities, community colleges and unions can provide these skills by focusing on training programs that lead to credentials or certifications. Creating career ladders that link training, employment, and education can provide low-skill and low-wage workers with a future of opportunity and steadily increasing earnings.
Even with trained workers, ultimately it is demand that drives job creation. Motivating landlords and homeowners to make energy-saving improvements—replacing inefficient furnaces, sealing ducts, or insulating hard-to-reach walls—isn’t easy, even when it’s in owners’ financial interest. Outreach and financial incentives that offer property owners compelling reasons to invest in energy efficiency are crucial for creating good jobs.
One incentive program state governments should consider would offer property owners an energy guide or “outfitter,” an individual who helps connect owners with the resources they need.
A home or business owner could call one phone number, have an outfitter dispatched to the door, and get detailed information about which improvements would save the most energy and money.
Rather than asking individuals to navigate all these questions alone, the outfitter would work with the homeowner to identify grants or loans that could be paid back each month along with regular utility bills. Customers could easily see their energy savings each month as they pay down their loan. Outfitters would dispatch contractors who have already been trained to do the work and, finally, ensure through follow-up audits that the improvements are saving energy as promised.
Using stimulus dollars to fund smart financing programs could help building owners, renters and contractors realize immediate financial benefits from lower energy. One option would have the state government use federal stimulus dollars to create a revolving loan fund. This fund could support low-interest loans for energy efficient retrofits. As the loans are paid back the money is re-invested in more retrofits. This would keep money in the state, and recycle stimulus funds instead of spending them away.
Applying such a comprehensive set of solutions can help Northwest states lead a green-collar economic recovery. But success won’t only be captured in higher quarterly earnings or a lower unemployment rate. It will be measured by whether the Northwest increasingly offers its residents a more sustainable way to live, with greater energy independence, fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, cozier buildings with lower operating costs, and a good job for everyone who needs one.
Roger Valdez is a research associate at the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, a research and communications center dedicated to a healthy, sustainable and fair economy in the Northwest.