Monday was the deadline for public comments on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' proposal on gathering data on green jobs. It was a minor step in an obscure, slow-moving process most Americans aren't watching.
The public commentary period that just ended is part of a larger federal effort to formalize our understanding of what a green job is and count, for the first time, how many green jobs already exist and how fast the sector is growing. It's both critical and frustratingly, agonizingly slow-moving. In the meantime, we've pumped millions of dollars into green-jobs training programs, and politicians have touted the idea that a full economic recovery hinges on using green jobs to revitalize the manufacturing sector.
So, what is a green job? The two-part BLS definition, which the bureau began working on in early 2010, was released last September. It focuses on the degree of environmental impact: Green jobs must either be in industries that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, or must be jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly.
That definition was rightly criticized as overly broad. While nearly everyone would include installing solar panels as a green job, what about an architect who designs a green house? (Under the proposed definition, both would count.) Moreover, the definition also largely ignores how we define environmental benefit: Houses, for example, are held to standards supplied by the U.S. Green Building Council in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System, which awards points based on green materials and processes used. A luxury house in the suburbs with Energy Star appliances and sustainable wood flooring would qualify as green, never mind if the future resident drives her SUV 30 miles daily to work.
Another problems comes in weighing green purposes against green execution: We could count, for example, public-transit train operators as green workers. But how do we break down transportation as an industry more broadly? Most would probably agree that truckers who drive tractor-trailers running on diesel fuel wouldn't count as green workers even if they're transporting wind-turbine parts. And many of the jobs we would count as green already exist.
Ultimately, the definition, even as it has been debated for the past year, means little until we match it up with the actual workforce. Sarah White, who works on sustainable workforce and clean-energy issues for the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, says we've made mistakes applying definitions before: In the beginning of the ethanol craze, nearly everyone who grew corn was counted as part of the sector. "[It's] almost impossible to count green jobs," she says. "Part of somebody's job might be green. ... There aren't usually any single jobs that are completely green."
Defining green jobs has already been an issue in the handful of states which have tried to measure them. In 2009, Michigan issued a report that put its green-job sector at about 3 percent of its overall workforce, but, as the Columbus Dispatch pointed out, the Pew Charitable Trusts also issued a report on green jobs in the state, albeit with a more narrow definition, and found that Michigan had about one-fifth of the green jobs it had reported.
States have an obvious incentive to make the definition of green jobs broad -- they're competing with other states for federal dollars and employers. But employers are biased as well. For example, the coal industry wants to say it's creating green jobs each time it installs a pollution-control system in an aging coal power plant. Those efforts might employ green workers, but it's up for debate if they truly promote an environmental agenda.
The problem of definition will not disappear with a federal decision. The Obama administration has touted green-job creation as an important component of its stimulus package. But a better definition will not tell us much about how green-job efforts fit into the overall jobs picture, what they mean for the health of the economy, or what we need to do to secure the middle class.
We won't see how the new definition of green jobs is applied for a year: Data collection is starting now and the first numbers are set to appear in the spring of 2012. But don't expect politicians or policy-makers to wait until this is hashed out to brag about how many green jobs they've created or how much the sector has grown.