Monday, August 10, 2009

Preparing for the Green Wave

Today’s economy is starting to recover. What are the forces that will begin to move our economy back into prosperity? Historically, periods of economic growth were created by new investments in entirely new economic innovations that spurred the economy forward by creating new demands for goods and services.

The most likely candidate for the next wave of economic growth is the green economy. An emerging consensus on the definition of the green economy is: “The green economy encompasses the economic activity related to reducing the use of fossil fuels, decreasing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, increasing the efficiency of energy usage, recycling materials and developing and adopting renewable sources of energy.”

One of the main barriers to expansion of this sector is the lack of a skilled workforce. While the green sector is expected to grow 4 times faster than the rest of the economy, even in today's downturn, college classes are full and money for expansion is limited. While there is now very good data on the sectors and occupations related to green jobs, there is not a clear idea among educators and policy-makers about which new jobs and careers are just around the corner.

In Washington State there is an estimated total employment of nearly 50,000 direct green jobs which equals roughly 1.6% of state employment.

How to we maximize the benefit of the coming Green Wave? How do we ensure that all of our citizens benefit from it? How we position our society to best prepare?

If you look out on the horizon you can see some areas of the economy that are going to grow rapidly that are green driven. Nationally, Green Jobs are expected to grow by 52% over the next 7 years as compared to 14% for all other jobs.. Analysts believe that many of the jobs will be in commercial and residential energy efficiency where 70% of the new jobs will be in construction. Right now, any growth in this area will simply pull unemployed construction off the bench. But, within a year or so, as construction begins to recover, we will see significantly more job openings than we have workers.

This put us in an investment dilemma. Do we start pre-apprenticeship programs to ensure that disadvantaged kids can get the jobs and that we can actually start doing the work when the economy picks up? There's a risk. When will the jobs start to pick up?

Beyond this, there are already 1,700 job vacancies in engineering, architecture and installation and positions for environmental engineering technicians as well as electrical power line installers are already in high demand.

Other jobs that are expected to grow rapidly include:

  • Power engineers and computer technicians to design, manufacture and maintain new SmartGrid systems.
  • Machinists, electricians, operators and maintenance technicians for renewable energy production, operation and maintenance.
  • Farm workers and process technicians for the cultivation and processing of bio fuels and biomass
  • Alternative transportation designers and maintenance workers.
  • Recycling and waste management operators and technicians.
  • Organic farmers, farm workers, urban agriculture land use planners and green roof designers in sustainable agriculture and horticulture.

Community colleges and universities currently offer over 100 unique course titles and green jobs and 60 certifications programs for green jobs. However classes are already full. There is some new money from the U.S. Department of Labor that could be used to expand capacity as well as provide new offerings. However, the amount of direct aid for college classes is limited. At the same time, no new state money has been provided for green jobs and community college and university programs have been cut dramatically to balance the state budget.

If we are to get ahead of the curve here it is absolutely essential we start off by creating a dialogue between the scientists, investors and business leaders who are in the process of creating the new green jobs of the future and the educators who need to provide the professional and technical programs that can lead students to the career pathways for those jobs. This dialogue could include a review of recent research but more importantly gain insights into the "big ideas" that are likely to drive the future.

Once we have a firm understanding of the whole picture; both the existing data and research, and the futurists insights into what is coming up, we can outline the educational program needs. And most importantly, we can begin to inspire and engage young people to pursue green careers.

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