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Green-collar Blues

Over at Grist, Anna Fahey posts a persuasive set of facts and counterclaims geared at convincing those who are skeptical about the existence of so-called "green collar jobs." The new policy buzzword (which Hillary Clinton injected into her Pennsylvania victory speech with as much aplomb as she did her campaign website), it seems, has some people fearful of a costly bait and switch.

It isn't just that people haven't heard the details on what a green labor force would look like, though that's certainly true. When I called the White House Council on Environmental Quality (chaired by former Exxon lobbyist James Connaughton) while reporting this piece on green jobs and unions, an aide asked simply: "What's that"?

Fahey makes swift work of this first notion, detailing numerous types of work that aid and abet the nascent Envirolution. Most of these jobs are being orchestrated on a small scale--impacting anywhere from 30 to a couple thousand workers. But the work is being done: Fahey mentions no less than two dozen private organizations that traffic in preservation, efficiency retrofitting, renewables and construction. I'll add to the list: Spanish wind giant Gamesa, which employs some 800 United Steelworkers in rural Pennsylvania; Sustainable South Bronx, which provides environmental stewardship training (green roofs, brownfield cleanup) to low-income minorities; Solar Richmond, which sends a team of at-risk youth out to install solar panels. New "green job" aggregation sites are popping up all over the place.

(And here I'll remind people that "green-collar" is being used in its broadest, most socially uplifiting sense at places like the Apollo Alliance, the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and Green For All--promising no less than "family-sustaining, career-path" jobs of the type that once anchored the middle class.)

The point Myers misses is that green jobs are "new" jobs in two senses. If the green-collars (from think tankers to ex-cons) get their way, timeworn skill sets--like sheet metal working or electrical engineering--will be transposed to more energy efficient purposes, like wind turbine or solar panel construction. Some jobs that were lost will be found. But other positions--like the army of home and small business energy auditors needed to modernize our infrastructure--will be brand new, though the contractors and builders that implement their recommendations will not. Sure, there is some tit for tat in terms of net job creation, but even if 5 million "new" jobs is an overstatement, the hiring trend should put greater market emphasis on nonpolluting industries--the real objective here.

But the crucial financial component, as I've written before, is bound up in backward federal sulkiness. The much-applauded (and rightfully so) December energy bill included $125 million for green job training. Policy types say this money is the foot in the door that is needed to start converting believers and funneling political capital toward a green industrial makeover. Compare it, however, to the $300 million tiny Rhode Island was able to put toward renewable economic growth and see just how trickle-up the green jobs movement has become. It's no mistake that governers Crist, Granholm, Schwartenegger, Gregoire and Rendell--not to mention the nearly 300 mayors who have adopted Kyoto--are all leading the charge where Washington has failed. Further, the Bushies' penchant for oil and gas has venture capitalists totally cowed. Despite the huge advantage to first movers, a lack of administrative confidence has directly caused the market uncertainty that is shackling green industry.

As for the politics, I think green jobs right now provide an exceptional opportunity for Barack Obama to pivot, from his proven "straight talk" on the gas holiday canard, into a discussion of energy independence and its economic benefits, which could not only repair his damaged coalition of blacks and educated whites, but extend a hand to out-of work union types. This move, this week, could be money in the bank if--as has been discussed here--a greener America will be one of the big asks of his presidency.

--Dayo Olopade