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?

This is an outgrowth of the money DOE and DOL are putting into workforce development for green jobs while still trying to focus on their usual clientel - those with limited english proficiency, limited skills or other barriers to employment. They also are focused on projects that have a short turn around (18 months between training and employment) because of the way they usually do job training. What they really need to do is stop training solar panel installers and start training more electrical and mechanical engineers to design them. But that doesn't fit the demographic or the goals of the DOL, local EDDs or most "traditional" federal job development programs.

No solutions here - maybe the green jobs folks could have some HVAC training or other more traditional craft training to help them with employability? I'd include phlebotomy training in your green jobs courses and see if that doesn't help too (kidding on this last).
I am unaware of a generic Green Jobs program locally, but we have some successful workforce programs that are producing employees for specific companies that are hiring.

A nitpick about "It caught on in some scientific and medical applications, where it makes the math a lot easier...." Metric is used exclusively in scientific work and quite widely in engineering and manufacturing.

The reason that plan failed is that somewhere one Idiot thought he would get a speeding ticket for mistakenly driving 100 mph in a 100 kph zone and an Idiot Chorus drove Congress to distraction. I remember it well. People were afraid they wouldn't know how much metric gas to put in their car.

In any case, metric conversion actually took place without you noticing. Soda is sold in liter bottles because they are slightly bigger than a quart, so consumers thought they were getting a lot more for the same money. Booze is sold in 750 ml bottles rather than fifths because they are smaller and drunks don't know they are getting less for the same money. And every product is labeled in metric because it is sold in countries where that is the rule.
Our university has a large construction management and technology program and added a "green major" last year. I think it was in partnership with a local construction company who asserted that they needed employees trained in green construction. This is also part of our new university president's goal of making ours a green campus. So, here, I see it well beyond repair or installation training.

On the home upgrades, I certainly agree. I put in a new furnace last year and the HVAC company owner said that the first time I had to replace a part, I would lose all the money I'd gain. He said it only made sense if you were going to be in the house a long time and I couldn't answer that question. Also, the modulating noises would drive me nuts at night. ;-)
The metric system is further delayed by the fact that the US Govt and defense industry all still use the old system of units and require it on all their drawings/specifications. So every fighter jet we (as taxpayers) buy, is required to be in the old units. I hear the US Automakers have actually moved over to metric completely.

I agree with your assessment of green jobs and have thought the same thing myself. Solar panels are great, but they're still very expensive. If they were more efficient and/or cheaper that would help, and like Ivory says you're going to need more engineers and scientists to make that happen. Then again, it's not going to happen without demand. The government could start requiring more green projects but even that doesn't seem to help, more like it's propping up what would be an otherwise dead market.

I think it's foolish to say green jobs are the future and that manufacturing jobs are all going to go. It's true there will be some transition but the implications that green jobs are america's profitable future and that the strong US manufacturing sector is dead are equally ludicrous. I suspect going forward the US will have an economy that is more diverse than people think it will.

I hear all the nursing graduates are having trouble getting jobs too, despite the fact that there is supposed to be a current nursing shortage and the fact that healthcare spending hasn't dropped significantly.

Or they were always saying there would be a lack of skilled workers when the Boomers retired. Now the excuse is that their retirement portfolios are decimated, but people are still warning about this impending Boomer retirement. I'm not sure that's accurate either,
FrauTech: Or they were always saying there would be a lack of skilled workers when the Boomers retired. Now the excuse is that their retirement portfolios are decimated, but people are still warning about this impending Boomer retirement. I'm not sure that's accurate either

I was at a college that started a Gerontology/Intergenerational Studies degree in the mid-90's in anticipation of the Great Retirement. The program went into sunset (no new students; current students finish out the string) a few years ago because there were no jobs to be had, therefore very few students chose to major in it, subsequently there were even fewer graduates, which led to the college and the state pulling the plug (no pun intended.)

Of course! I can think of two ways, which would work even better if combined.

1. Stronger government regulations on energy efficiency coupled with a rise in electricity and gas rates that actually reflect what these commodities are worth and hey presto DeanDad and everyone on his block will be having an energy audit, getting a heat exchanger, putting up solar panels and installing that on-demand hot water heater.

2. A shift in moral and cultural values that puts something, anything, before economic interests, and makes 'making your money back' on certain items (basically anything that uses energy or water) a non-issue.

Suggestion number one is the LEAST the Obama administration (and any sane government) should be doing to encourage green jobs and making human societies more energy efficient. But in our current structure, and given the so-called economic downturn, these things are ignored, or laughed at, or one is made to feel like some irredeemable hippy or killjoy or an advocate of 'evil Big Government' by even suggesting such things, so I'm not hopeful. Where I live I can connect my soon-to-be-installed solar panels to the grid and make money off of them, and I figure it will be pure profit in 8 years, but that's too 'long term' and my neighbors all think I'm nuts for doing it. I don't think it is nuts at all, everyone's house is mortgaged for a much longer term than 8 years and no one finds that to be crazy!
IMO, the problem may lie in the idea that "green jobs" are a separate category, instead of a natural extension of, say, automotive repair or HVAC installation. Teaching students how to install all kinds of hot water heaters, or work on hybrid cars as well as traditional ones, is smart. Teaching them only the "green" technology means that when they graduate, they won't be able to find enough work to live on.

@grumpyabdadjunct: I'm going to have to disagree here. My guess is that you have an expansive view of the "cost" of energy, including dollar values attached to environmental degradation, etc. Problem is, there is no commonly-agreed-upon way to calculate this, and most people don't share your view that energy is uniquely precious. You're going to get a lot of pushback unless you take cost-benefit calculations into account.

In some areas, notably the Southwest, rationing of finite natural resources like water is absolutely justified. Personally, I'd favor a system where each person gets a sustainable allocation of water at low cost, and must purchase (at very high rates, if necessary) any usage above that threshold. All of a sudden, you'll see an explosion of xeriscaping, water re-use, and other conservation measures. With those market pressures, new conservation technologies would become common quickly. What would not be reasonable, however, is to jack up the price on the first drop of water--there is a finite amount of water that can be consumed without harm, so don't penalize people just for living.

I also worry that any nationwide regulatory scheme wouldn't take into account local needs. My area has neither strong winds nor much sunshine, so those "green" energy sources wouldn't pay off in eight fact, the solar panels or wind turbines would fail before they paid back the cost of installation. Really much better all 'round for me to get my power from hydroelectric or nuclear sources via my power company. If I am forced to install and maintain inefficient power sources at very high cost because the government wants me to be green, that's effectively a tax, and it's a tax that has a poor payoff.
Yeah, but weather-proofing your home is always a good idea. Except that nobody knows who to trust, and contractors are in general hideously poorly regulated.
Dicty - you are probably right on the first point, that you and I will disagree on the 'true' costs of power, but that doesn't mean we can't have a conversation and both make some compromises to come up with something that is at least much better than the way it is done now.

On your second point, there is NOTHING, nothing, that precludes local solutions even when a national plan is present. Regional or local needs/conditions can be built into a national plan if the will is there to do it. This happens all the time in other jurisdictions. Yes it is another set of difficult issues but holding together any federation always is and it needs to be started. I wouldn't expect the Pacific Northwest to generate lots of solar, hydro (within limits) is fine for those folks as long as they also pay a fair rate and do the environmental mitigation required. And so on for other regions (like your astute suggestions about water for the South West).

For example, lack of federal will to do anything about car emissions in both the US and Canada have force several US states (California, for one) and Canadian provinces (Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and BC) to follow the so-called 'California' system of emissions standard in tandem. Obama gave the states a pass to do so, in Canada the Feds have such a weak jurisdiction over this area (which is also what allows the Tar Sands to run with virtual impunity, so there are downsides) that they can't do much but bluster.

There are ways to move on this stuff, but we need the will. The fact that even someone like DeanDad (sorry DD, I don't mean to beat you up here) who has the financial means but won't pony up because of what is largely an economic argument means that we need either point 1 or point 2, hopefully both, to happen to even get in the game.
First of all, blame (or celebrate) Ronald Reagan Administration for putting the kibosh on our conversion to the metric (SI) system. So, now we continue share our own anachronistic measuring 'system' with the rest of the non-SI system world, Burma (Myanmar) and Liberia.

Yes, American car makers sort of went to the SI system, but you will find that while the bolt heads in car engines are indeed SI (so you can use SI wrenches), the threads are still American system. I learned this to my great sorrow when I purchased a true metric bolt to replace one in an engine block and stripped out the threads in the block.

Yes, we too are frantically starting up Green Jobs programs because there is Federal money to do so. And, I too worry that there may not be jobs for those who complete these certificates. And, I think that we should blame (or celebrate) the Reagan Administration for this too, for they dismantled all of Carter's energy efficiency and alternative energy initiatives. If those initiatives had stayed in place, I wonder if we would feel the need to start up Green Jobs programs today.

Lastly, we won't get anywhere with things like energy retrofits of homes until we look at the real overall costs, and not just the direct costs. If one strictly looks only at the direct financial cost bottom line, nobody would drive a Prius, as it is doubtful that you will pay back the extra cost of this car with the gasoline savings. But if we take into account the costs that our country has incurred in ensuring the flow of petroleum, and the costs of cleaning up the air from the use of that petroleum, a Prius (and a home energy retrofit) begins to make total sense.

Getting off the soapbox and dealing with the original question, I think that it behooves any college that starts up a Green Jobs program to market the heck out of it to local employers and industry, and have an aggressive employment referral program.
My town in central Texas has long had a great green building program. My 10 year old house is "green built" and I love the low electricity bills. There is still a large amount of new housing construction here and utility incentives for all sorts of things include more efficient washers, dryers, refrigerators, toilets, weatherization, and solar panels. There are both state, regional, and local efforts to train folks for "green jobs." Too soon to see the impact but these types of jobs are essentially construction jobs -- so you need a vibrant economy where people are still buying and building new homes to really generate jobs. My sense has always been that DD lives in an economically depressed area without much job growth?
Anonymous at 7:20AM says: I was at a college that started a Gerontology/Intergenerational Studies degree in the mid-90's in anticipation of the Great Retirement.

I can think of no better example for why everyone needs some basic math. 1946 + 62.5 = 2008 not 1995. And since that was only the leading edge of the baby boom (which peaked in 1957), and because many people will choose to wait until age 65 or 67 to maximize their benefits, the Great Retirement is still a decade in the future!

They should have started that program in 2015, not 1995.
I agree with Dictyranger and Grumpyadjunct -- the government is focusing on the wrong side of the supply-demand balance by creating a supply of workers with overly specific "green" training instead of driving up the demand -- something that is very much in their power. They need to create those jobs first with regulation, energy taxes (which will be as unpopular as Dictyranger says) research funding (to push toward cheaper technologies), and by making more large scale gov't construction projects "green." Once demand rises for energy efficient technology rises, there will be jobs for people who can install and operate it -- and I doubt there will be a shortage of people who are capable of doing that, with or without a special degree.

But even then, retrofitting will probably never be a huge industry. Old buildings will eventually fall down and be replaced, and the new ones will be more energy efficient, one hopes. That where those people will be needed, and the companies that build things will probably train them themselves.

Really "Green jobs" should mean the jobs building the new solar farms that the government should be putting up all over New Mexico, the new wind farms that they should be putting up all over Kansas, and the new high-efficiency public transportation systems that they should be building all over the damn country.

Maybe we could combine training and building programs -- on the job training for those willing to work on these projects could count toward a degree, and still be real experience on a resume. That would be the best thing for workers and from the point of view of making our natural resources last, IMO.

Your program sounds very cart before horse...
DD--I'm sure your contractor is a fine fellow, but check out the Rinnai tankless system. Two men tore out the old leaking heater, did the plumbing, and had us in hot water. so to speak, in about three hours.

All the hot water you want (and that may mean more when TG is a bit older), cheaper to operate, no problems these past three years, and not going to rot out every decade like a long series of tanks did. Forget the higher initial cost, forget recouping the original investment, live a little and enjoy those long showers.
The Baby Boom started in 1937, not 1945. It was to do with vacuums, not WWII.
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