Greening of our economy: the rise of the green collar workforce

| July 10, 2009


I was recently invited to be a member of an expert panel, bought together by the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand, to discuss the rise of the Green Collar Workforce.

As the General Manager of Government and Public Sector at one of the worlds oldest and largest employment companies, the move towards a change in workforce diversity as a result of the rise of a green economy is not only important to me, it is a key solution to the issue of climate change.

When we reach Copenhagen this December the world should already have an indication of whether or not a deal can be struck on lowering carbon emissions and, therefore, stabilising climatic changes. We should know because Governments and policy makers are already beginning to outline their individual policy programs. In the United States that response has recently been outlined by President Barrack Obama ahead of the G8 Conference in Italy:

So we have a choice to make.  We can remain one of the world’s leading importers of foreign oil, or we can make the investments that would allow us to become the world’s leading exporter of renewable energy.  We can let climate change continue to go unchecked, or we can help stop it.  We can let the jobs of tomorrow be created abroad, or we can create those jobs right here in America and lay the foundation for lasting prosperity."

-President Obama, March 19, 2009

To achieve this outcome, the United States Government will be making significant investments that are wide ranging such as $11 billion in the redevelopment of the national grid, $2 billion to create more efficient batteries, $5 billion for low income home weatherization and, importantly $600 million invested in green jobs training programs.

In addition, steps are being taken to modify the national car fleet. This is largely being done to improve fuel efficiency in Model Year 2011 cars, a new and interesting development which is not only about investment in hybrid car technology. The factor here however is investment in jobs, innovation and primary production.

The United States Government has also outlined what it will do in terms of carbon pollution. An outline of the more formative steps around a market based cap framework will, no doubt, be debated in the US Congress ahead of Copenhagen and outlined further by the President in the months ahead.

The debate in Australia of lowering emissions and an emissions trading platform is currently underway with the debate being about the percentage fall as opposed to the need to have a system in place. Of that, there is little debate. In the case of Australia it is more about fine tuning the system and the implementation timeline.

In the United Arab Emirates, one of the largest producers of primary fossil fuels such as Oil, steps are already well under way to not only reduce carbon, but neutralise it. The rise of Masdar City in the sands of the UAE is an example of how technology, innovation and sustainable construction techniques can lead to a credible example of how a city of 50,000 can work, play and live in an environment free from the pressures of ineffective energy grids, traditional methods of building and mass urbanised individual transportation such as cars.

So, the movement for change has begun but it is no longer simply about renewable energy versus traditional forms of energy – it is about consumer demand driving the change in our thinking and, therefore, what we produce. You see, we all want a cleaner future. We all know, irrespective of climate change and whether you agree or disagree with the science, that we need to stop polluting our environment and decrease our foot print on the earth – we knew more than a decade ago when we decided to "clean up Australia". A time when climate change was in its infancy in global and local politics. The green movement more than a decade ago was not one focused on the climate change debate, it was about protecting our natural resources primarily. And so we should have.

So with Governments beginning to move on the question of climate change and consumers driving innovation through demand we have some questions that need answering and action that requires implementation.

The first question needs to answer the concerns many have about environmental policies impacting on local jobs because, at the end of the day, this current economic environment is passionately aligned with jobs and the protection of people’s income.

The second question is what is a green job? and what is the green collar workforce? Is it all about renewable energy?

The third question is if a green job is real, and I can see it and feel it and touch it – what do we do to ensure we have the right skills to further develop the green jobs sector.

The fourth question is how do we as a group of people, governments and business get involved? How do we drive demand and how do we encourage our leaders to think the way we think and do the things we do?

The final question is – where to from here? What tangible action steps can we take to support change.

So lets start with question one. Does the implementation of an ETS have the potential to impact on local jobs that already exist in the economy? The honest answer is yes, but do we know if it will be a negative impact or a positive impact? As old industries fall, new industries always grow – even towards the end of recessions, new innovative and entrepreneurial sectors rise. The reality is we will be transitioning to new sources of energy and, therefore, the debate around the loss of jobs becomes a moot point – in other words, with a plan we can cross skill workers into new industries where necessary. Then again, it takes new skills and fresh thinking to reform our national energy grid, it takes traders to trade carbon credits on a local and international scale, it takes workers to plant trees in terms of offset schemes, it takes office workers and administrators to file the paperwork and take the phone calls – it takes auditors to audit the scheme and accountants to ensure the cost falls correctly on the bottom-line. At the Government end it takes auditors and assessors, educators and managers – the impact of job losses can be lessened if we get our heads around the jobs that will be created – while at the same time not forgetting those in the current industries whose jobs, in the decade to come, may be superceded. We win when we plan effectivly and execute policies. That is why skills reform is important.

Think about this – the last big change to the workforce occurred when information technology began to permeate the workplace – all of a sudden a completely new series of industries rose creating millions and millions of jobs worldwide – industries that are still rising and still employing. You could take a word like commerce or learning, banking or travel and slap an e in front of it. Not only would someone invest in it – millions of us would buy it. It started with innovation and was fast taken over by consumer demand. Hell, you could stick an e in front of door and some venture capitalist firm would buy into it. Even today, technology plays a large role in our lives – so what if we tried today what we did then to get people to understand where we were heading and formalise the debate around green issues and the green economy – well, you know what, and you heard it here first – lets start g’ing the world – g-learning, g-banking, g-skills, g-jobs – god forbid, g-door.

You can secure jobs and grow jobs at the same time – the starting point has to be a strategy – one that is real and involves us all – we are all part of the solution.

That said, the fundamental issue we have is whether or not we have the skills in the economy today to support a rise in g-jobs. This is the central tenant of the second question I asked. Did you know that it takes between 45-75% less energy to produce secondary steel – steel that can be used in the construction of our buildings and roads, ports and rail – do we know how to use secondary steel in construction? Do we have builders and engineers, architects and designers in sufficient numbers today let alone tomorrow? No we don’t – in order to produce those people, we need to re-think our education programs. Giving people the skills they need is paramount to green jobs programs and strategies. With skills reform occurring across the country, now is the time to turn our attention to added investment in specific programs.

So, green jobs will touch all of us, don’t get bogged down in the debate around green jobs being specific to the renewable energy sector – but in case you are, then think about this:

In New Delhi the introduction of 6,100 CNG buses by the end of this year is expected to have created 18,000 new jobs. Not just for bus drivers and related workers, but those who manufacture the bus – those who work in the CNG sector who, through increased demand will require additional staff.

A study undertaken by the British Government as far back as 2000 concluded that for $1.4 million dollars invested in residential energy efficiency 11.3 – 13.5 Full Time Equivalent jobs would be created.

More than 4 million direct green jobs already exist in the United States – well ahead of the recent announcement by President Obama who is committed to further mass jobs growth.

In Germany jobs in the solar energy sector have gone from 5,400 in 1998 to 40,200 in 2006. Data now shows an expected increase of a further 49% by 2010.

The figures go on and on. Green jobs touch us all, we just don’t realise it.

I just want to summarise by quoting from the most recent United Nations, ILO report on Green Jobs:

Skills gaps and shortages have emerged as a binding constraint on the greening of economies in industrial and developing countries alike. They are reported in the biofuels industry in Brazil, in the renewable energy and environmental industry in Bangladesh, Germany and the United States and in the construction sector in Australia, China, Europe and South Africa.

The majority of architects and engineers worldwide are unaware of the materials, designs and construction techniques available for energy efficient buildings and are therefore unable to put them to use in their projects. Ambitious standards for zero or negative energy houses adopted in the United Kingdom cannot be met because construction enterprises and workers do not have the capacity to build to these standards. In China, the best technology available for new buildings cannot be used because of the existing low qualification levels of construction workers.

While much of the attention focuses on technology, experience demonstrates that the weakest link in the production chain will determine the level of performance that can be attained. Without qualified entrepreneurs and skilled workers, the available technology and resources for investments cannot be used or cannot deliver the expected environmental benefits and economic returns. Endeavours to close the current skills gap and anticipate future needs are essential for a transition to a green and low carbon economy. An emphasis on the high end of skills and education would be misplaced. Training what might be termed "greencollar" workers is just as important. Examples cited in the report demonstrate that skills upgrading is both fundamental and possible. This is evident both in industrialized continents and countries, including Australia, the United States and Europe, and also in developing countries and emerging economies, such as Bangladesh, Brazil, China and Kenya.

Entrepreneurial skills can be as important as technical know-how. The training of young people, women and members of poor urban and rural communities can pay particularly high dividends.  

Creating a map of skill requirements is a vital first step as it can inform ad hoc programs for potential skills upgrading.

Assessments of the potential of green jobs and the monitoring of such jobs, as described above, would constitute an ideal basis for ad hoc measures and for the adaptation of national vocational training and education systems over the medium term. This would allow skills development to tie in directly with policies and investments.

Are green jobs real? Yes – are we seeing the rise of the green collar workforce? Yes. Are we prepared to take advantage of this new and dynamic change in workforce diversity?  

Think for a moment about the management of supply chain what starts as your input to achieve the output. The first input is investment in skills development, making sure we have innovative and entrepreneurial people who are able to take advantage of the rise of the green economy. Within that frame, another input could be to invest in new technologies or sectors that grow as a result of this entrepreneurial spirit. As we move through the supply chain continued investment in skills development and reform can drive ongoing business investment – while the ultimate output within the supply chain is, of course, jobs.

A green job, a blue job – a white job – are all shades of the same colour at the end of the day, it just so happens that as we move down this path of global climate and environmental changes we need something to be simple and understandable, not confusing – that’s why g’ing up the world can be so easy to understand.

Reference points:

  1. The United Nations / ILO Report into Green Jobs, November 2008
  2. The International Labour Organisation Employment Trends May 2009

Matthew Tukaki is General Manager of Government and Public Sector at Drake International. He was formerly Director of SansGov leading that organisation’s government policy, advisory and services practice. Matthew is the former General Manager of Education at IT&T Education, former Head of the review into Knowledge and Information Management Strategies at both the Joint House Department of the Parliament of Australia and the Australian Communications Authority, former Head of Government, Knowledge Management and Education at Dattatech Samsung SDS and former Chairman of both the National Skills for Schools program and the Government Policy Advisory Panel.