Two major reviews of green jobs in Canada and the United States confirm the basic principle that making the shift from an economy based on consumption to one based on conservation can yield jobs—lots of them. While the news is good, it should also come with a warning. In the case of the Canadian report, a healthy green economy now doesn’t mean the province can slow its investment in training qualified workers for green jobs. And in the case of the green economy in the US, a healthy dose of patience will be needed as large amounts of money struggle to find their way to local programs where they can create jobs.

Let’s start with the Globe Foundation’s analysis of the green economy in British Columbia, which found that BC’s green economy, including clean energy, accounted for “nearly 166,000 direct and indirect full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs in 2008.” That’s about 7.2 percent all employment in the province. Globe has this prediction for the province:

  • A range of growth scenarios for the green economy suggest that GDP from BC’s green sectors could grow from $15.3 billion in 2008 to between $20.1 billion and $27.4 billion in 2020. This would represent from between 10.8 per cent and 14.1 per cent of total provincial GDP, assuming that total GDP grows at its projected average rate of 2.2 per cent to 2020. In terms of green jobs in BC, a shortage of labour market supply poses the greatest threat to potential growth.

    The biggest hurdle in the way of to more job growth in BC is the lack of enough trained workers to meet the demand for products and services in BC’s green economy. As in the United States, the clean energy sector’s need for trained workers is outpacing the supply.

    While BC’s employment picture is getting better—seasonally-adjusted unemployment in the province fell from 8.1 percent to 7.7 percent in February of this year—it hasn’t gotten close to pre-recession unemployment levels of 4 or 5 percent. The Globe Foundation report cites the province’s almost two dozen post-secondary training and certification programs as an important part of keeping the green economy growing with highly trained workers. Keeping the green jobs momentum in BC will mean more investment in training by continuing to support the programs that are already turning out many of the workers for the green sector

    In the United States, there’s a new analysis of a bill that would invest heavily in efficiency retrofits. Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced legislation earlier this month intended to create jobs by promoting the installation of energy-efficient renovations in commercial and multi-family residential buildings. Early drafts of the bill, reviewed by the American Council for and Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), point to significant money for energy efficiency as well as some new efficiency mandates. The ACEEE analysis concludes that the demand for efficiency retrofits created by the mandates and the additional dollars would create more than 300,000 new green jobs in the first year, and another 300,000 new green jobs over the following decade.

    ACEEE’s job projections are huge enough to give me pause, especially when I consider what I have already seen on the ground when money for green jobs actually hits the streets. For example, issues related to prevailing wage have slowed the local implementation of energy retrofits. Last summer I wrote about how efforts were being stepped up to address this issue in Washington State. But a recent story makes it clear that in Washington at least, prevailing wage is still a nettlesome problem, causing many retrofitting efforts to fizzle. The prevailing wage issue is a perfect example of good intentions—creating green jobs that pay well—clashing with on the ground economic realities. Other problems include lack of good financing—in Washington a PACE style program failed in the legislature—and attacks on effective tax credit programs for clean energy (see our report on Oregon’s Business Energy Tax Credit).

    Perhaps the biggest concern about the big employment projections and enthusiasm is that with so much money being spent in such a small amount of time there are bound to be glitches. And these glitches can translate into disappointments if the jobs fail to materialize as quickly as projected. As an antidote, I’d argue that every projection about green jobs in emerging sectors, especially the big ones like ACEEE’s, should come with a clear caveat about the real-world difficulties of implementation.

    Problems like the prevailing wage dilemma often elude the job projection calculators, no matter how rigorous and conservative the methodology. Job projections figures are never going to be perfect, but tempering them with a does of reality at the beginning can save a lot of anxiety while local governments and non-profits work out the details.

    Green jobs are real; and good decisions and prioritization of resources can create more of them. But an approach that combines good marketing, financing, project management, and continued investment is the only way the green economy will grow. We outline the essentials on our Green Collar Jobs Defined and Explained page, and Sightline will also be updating the Green Collar Jobs Primer with more examples of what is really working in the region.