Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Are Green Jobs the New Metric System?

A few years ago I mentioned my bewilderment at why the failure of the push to adopt the metric system in the United States in the 70's hasn't received more scholarly attention. I remember teachers earnestly walking us through the various units -- centimeters, kilograms, celsius degrees, etc. -- to prepare us for the Big Change. Obviously, with a few isolated exceptions, it didn't happen. It caught on in some scientific and medical applications, where it makes the math a lot easier, but never went much beyond that. I suspect there's a great American Studies dissertation waiting to be written on the whole kerfuffle.

Based on early results, I'm wondering if the Green Jobs movement will come to a similar fate.

As with the metric system, there's a certain logic to the idea that green jobs are the wave of the future. Efficiency gains are a form of productivity, and given the age of much of our public and private infrastructure, there's no denying the presence of uncaptured efficiency gains. The past few years have made it clear that energy prices can be annoyingly volatile, and that one way to insulate (no pun intended) oneself against the fluctuations is to consume less. I like the concept a lot, since it promises steady work, reduced consumption of fossil fuels, and reduced reliance on the people who own/produce the fuels. The political appeal of uniting the environmentalists, the national security enthusiasts, and the working class is obvious. And yet...

Like many cc's, mine is running several workforce development programs to train people for green jobs. Most of them involve working on buildings, whether it's doing energy audits, weatherizing, or installing specialized high-efficiency equipment (like water heaters). The instructors are experienced and pragmatic, the students are motivated, the curriculum makes sense, and...

Nobody's hiring.

The graduates of the programs aren't finding jobs. From a 'workforce development' standpoint, we're developing a workforce that can't find work.

I hope that this is mostly a function of the depressed housing market, and that things will pick up when the economy does. But I'm starting to wonder.

My house was built in the 80's. It still has the original water heater, since the original owner was a bit of a fussbudget about maintenance. (He's a contractor, and he's still local -- we've actually had him do a few jobs for us.) I've read a few things about tankless systems, and thought that they sounded pretty good. But when I asked the contractor about them, and he explained the cost and time involved in retrofitting all that would need to be retrofitted before the system could even go in, I dropped the idea. The cost of adjustment would so outstrip the annual savings that I'd never come close. When this heater dies, I'll get a slightly more efficient new one, but I'm not going nuts. It's not worth it. If I were building a new house from scratch, it might make sense, but as an incumbent homeowner, I'll pass.

Multiply that logic by most people, and you get a lot of unemployed technicians. The greatest gains from weatherization would come in the oldest and most poorly maintained houses, but the people who live in those houses generally don't have the cash lying around for large-scale retrofitting. Even if they did, the chances of them getting back their investments over time are minimal; the rate of residential turnover is much faster than the payback time, and a 'green' house in a slum is still in a slum, and will be valued accordingly. (That's not even taking into account the reality that the lowest-income people tend to rent. In a rental, the cost of the improvement would go to the landlord, and the payback would go to the tenant. Not much incentive there for the landlord, as long as tenants don't put much stock in energy efficiency when they look for places to live.)

In other words, I can see a broad societal need for greater efficiency, and I can see a widespread need for good jobs. But I don't see why enough people will demand the service to make the jobs sustainable. Just as I can concede that 1,000 is a rounder number than 5,280, but I don't see the need to convert all the road signs from miles to kilometers. The gain doesn't seem worth the cost of change.

So we're preparing students for the jobs of the future, though they could really use jobs in the present, and it's not entirely clear just when that particular future will come. I can't remember the last time I measured something in centimeters; some futures take longer than others. The students can't wait that long, and there isn't much point in developing a workforce that can't find work.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you seen more success for Green Jobs programs in your area? Is there a way to thread the needle? Can we save Green Jobs from becoming the new metric system?