The term "green jobs" has been thrown around as a password to a better future. But the definition of "green jobs" will receive a lot more scrutiny in the coming months as the federal government moves ahead with plans to spend billions on creating them.
Already, some labor leaders fear that those jobs will largely be low-paying gigs.
A report released Tuesday and commissioned by labor unions, the Sierra Club and Change to Win looked at existing jobs in solar and wind equipment construction as well as recycling and green building construction. The conclusion: While many companies treat their workers well, some provide an unsafe working environment and wages that fall below the national averages.
The report said that of the solar and wind factories it surveyed, only Sanyo's factory in Salem, Ore., is paying an adequate salary for a family of four. Sanyo is required to pay those wages in order to receive enterprise zone benefits (see a list of other companies below).
The report's authors couldn't get wage data directly from the companies, so they sought information from local governments and other sources of public documents. Some of the numbers will no doubt be disputed by some companies.
"Until now, discussions of green jobs have largely assumed that these will be good, middle-class jobs. In this report we test that assumption and find that it is not always valid," said the report.
Labor and environmental groups, like some lawmakers, are worried about green job security. They wonder whether President Obama's push to increase renewable energy generation will end up creating jobs in places such as Mexico and China. China's aggressive government policies have built up a formidable wind power equipment industry, reported the Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog.
A panel at GreenBiz.com's daylong forum in San Francisco discussed what defines a good green job on Monday. It was no surprise that of the panelists, none of them could offer a short, simple answer to the question. It was clear that green jobs wouldn't be limited to those involved in engineering and installing solar energy systems and wind farms.
But they offered some interesting thoughts on what policy makers should consider when crafting legislation to rebuild the economy.
"We talk about green-collar jobs like they are blue-collar jobs but are in industries for restoring the environment," said Ian Kim, director of Green-Collar Jobs Campaign at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., and a panelist. "Some friends in labor think green jobs are blue-collar jobs with a green lining, such as construction work, and that may be true as well."
Kim said creating good-paying jobs – and opportunities for career training – are just as important as creating a high number of jobs.
Pacific Gas and Electric, a Northern California utility, works with community colleges to develop curriculums for training people who want to work for the company but lack certain skills, such as in English or math.
Bill Stock, director of regulatory relations at PG&E and a panelist, said the company is bracing for the high number of people who will be ready for retirement. The number of Americans who are 65 or older will double by 2030 and represent 20 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Kim said job training should start as early as middle school. He also advocated setting regional goals. He noted that when each city sets its own climate-change target, it makes it difficult for companies that do business across the cities to comply.
He added that any job-creation legislation must be realistic.
"Workforce development must be demand driven. The worst is to train people for jobs that don't exist, or create jobs where the workforce doesn't exist," Kim said.