October 1, 2012

What's A Green Job? It Depends On Whom You Ask

Top left: John Odell, Worcester's energy efficiency and conservation manager, stands in the basement of City Hall next to a new energy-efficient chiller. Top right: Gary Briggs is an instructor at Quinsigamond Community College's photovoltaic installer program, which prepares students for an industry certification exam to become entry-level solar professionals. Botton: Christopher Bailey, a technician at Diamond-Roltran in Littleton, inspects a roll ring the firm has developed for wind turbines.

It sounds like the setup line for a joke: What do the driver of a hybrid bus, a sustainability coordinator and an electronics recycler have in common?

Yes, all those roles benefit the environment. But an answer more surprising than a punchline, even to some of the very people who hold those titles, is that they don't count as "green" jobs — at least not in Massachusetts.

John Odell, Worcester's energy efficiency and conservation manager, certainly views his duties — which save both energy and money for the city — as falling in line with environmental principles.

"Indeed I do think of myself that way," Odell said.

But the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (CEC), which started counting green jobs in 2011 as a way to measure, assess and even promote the industry, doesn't agree.

There's no offense intended, said Alicia Barton McDevitt, executive director of the CEC. But for the purpose of the green job count, the state decided to play it safe.

"We tried to take a conservative approach," Barton McDevitt said.

Focus On Clean Tech

The CEC and the firm it hired to help with the count, California-based BW Research, stuck to a narrower definition of green jobs that focuses solely on producing goods and services for the clean energy sector.

For example:

• A manufacturer who makes a part for a wind turbine employs green workers.

• But a paper mill that uses recycled paper, or an employee who works to lower his company's energy usage, doesn't count.

Philip Jordan, head of BW Research's Wrentham-based Green Labor Market Intelligence division, said the definition used in Massachusetts differs significantly from one the federal government uses.

The reason the state chose that direction was so its numbers could withstand scrutiny; to be cautious even when part of the goal is to promote the sector as a job-creation engine and the state as a home for such companies.

"It's better to leave jobs on the table — like those sustainability coordinators and community college instructors — than to overinflate these numbers, so we can try to have some sort of outcome that's desirable," Jordan said.

A Preemptive Defense

With its landmark Green Communities Act of 2008 that supports solar and wind power development, Massachusetts is arguably at the forefront of trying to support its green industry. But potential controversy lurks around every corner.

With the failure of the government-backed California company Solyndra — and more locally, Evergreen Solar — some politicians have claimed government subsidies for the industry are a waste of tax dollars and have even alleged the subsidies are a way to reward political donors.

So those politicians were ready to strike when the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its first set of green jobs numbers earlier this year.

The agency's sin, according to its critics, was that it cast too wide of a net in how it defined the jobs, thereby inflating the numbers to validate federal clean energy policies.

The result was that bus drivers counted as green jobs, as did many sanitation workers, half of workers in steel mills (because they were using recycled steel) and employees in bicycle shops (alternative transportation).

It all added up to more than 3.1-million green jobs across the country in 2010, the BLS announced earlier this year.

"They have a very wide definition," Jordan said. He said they would rather have a smaller number that's easier to defend.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) chastised BLS Director John Galvin in a June hearing for including portable toilet cleaners, rail car manufacturers, janitors at solar panel factories, antique dealers, Salvation Army employees and workers at used-record stores as green jobs. Even an oil lobbyist, if involved in some way in environmental advocacy, would count under that system, Galvin confirmed.

Conflicting Counts

Massachusetts and the BLS are not the first to try to count green jobs. The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Brookings Institution, and several economists have all come out with their own methods for counting at the state and national levels.

The definitions all vary, and so do the methodologies. While most rely more on models, BW Research attempted more than 31,000 phone surveys and 5,000 email surveys in Massachusetts.

By relying on direct-survey responses, including those from companies known to the state beforehand and a random sampling of others, Jordan believes the Massachusetts green job count is the most comprehensive and accurate count for the state.

Still, like many surveys, it can be a challenge to get employers to respond. BW enlisted the help of various employer associations and consultants, like the Worcester-based Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MassMEP), to get the word out.

Jack Healy, MassMEP president, admitted that even with his urging on the surveys, "the delete button gets worked pretty well."

Healy said the green job classification reminds him a bit of other classifications of manufacturers.

"A lot of people make one or two parts, and suddenly they're a defense contractor," Healy said.

But he favors anything that leads to more awareness or assistance for manufacturers. He noted that MassMEP was recently certified to become a green jobs incubator, which will help green manufacturers commercialize new products.

And he thinks the state is doing a good job promoting the industry.

According to the CEC, green jobs in manufacturing grew the most of any category between 2011 and 2012, by 37 percent. Those jobs now make up 16 percent of all green jobs in the state.

A New Identity

Jordan said employers are often busy or don't see a benefit to filling out a survey. Another challenge researchers ran into is that many firms identify themselves as something other than a green employer.

Diamond-Roltran of Littleton falls into that category, but as its president, Matt Edison, explains, that perception could be shifting.

Diamond-Roltran was formed in 2007 as a spinoff of Diamond Antenna, which makes radar components. The company has never built parts for clean energy systems before, but is hoping to go to market in 2013 with a "roll ring" for wind turbines. The part would replace a typical slip ring between the rotator and generator, allowing for longer time online. "We see ourselves primarily as a mission-critical rotary electrical data and power transfer company," he said.

But Edison said a green employer classification is helping expand his firm's identity. The company is now on the state's radar screen as a green firm. Whether the state can help is yet to be seen. Edison said the startup is self-financed and that it's been difficult to find grants for research and other activities.

Interestingly, though the company counts as a green employer here in Massachusetts, it doesn't under the BLS definition — at least not yet.

The BLS doesn't count firms that are not bringing in revenue from their green products.

Green And Government

However they're defined, green jobs have grown over the past few years. And that has predictably piqued interest from economists and government, said Julia Haggerty, an analyst who has evaluated green job counts for Headwaters Economics, based in Montana.

"It may seem like there's a lot of attention, but that would probably also be true if we were talking about biotech 15 years ago, or any other nascent part of the economy that's seen rapid growth," Haggerty said.

One of the major reasons governments want to track green jobs is to validate or inform policies that affect the industry, she said.

But can green job growth be directly tied to government policies?

Barton McDevitt, of the CEC, admitted it's a challenging question to answer.

"I think there are some things that point to it not being a coincidence," she said.

One such example is that the energy efficiency sector is the largest green jobs employer in Massachusetts. With the money Massachusetts has allocated to those efforts, Barton McDevitt sees a direct tie.

"Similarly, we've seen an explosion of sorts of solar installations in the commonwealth," she said.

So, while there's an argument that state policies have caused some of the job growth in the state, Haggerty had words of caution for those who would mix advocacy with data collection, since one danger in green job counts is that they can be seen as tied to an administration's agenda.

"That's certainly the risk with any kind of data collection that is associated with the need to validate a particular agenda," Haggerty said, such as that of a government administration.

In order to track trends accurately, ensuring continued funding for green job counts is crucial, she said.

One of the current challenges is the lack of historical data to compare the counts against.

"With any economic data set, typically the most interesting data is (in) the trends," she said.

If the counts continue as planned, those trends will become more apparent with each passing year.

Read more

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Mass. Clean Energy Job Growth Passes 11%

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