Is This the Face of Green Jobs?

Construction worker


That’s a question green jobs studies aren’t asking. The answer may be key to helping expand support for green jobs.

Interest in green jobs in the United States and worldwide has expanded dramatically in the last 10 years, as evidenced by the many green jobs studies produced during this time, including this one from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which quantifies the growth in the number of what they call “clean energy economy” jobs.

The studies provide an immense and diverse array of data on green jobs, from what states and countries have the most, to what these jobs pay, to some definition of what actually counts as a green job. What every study so far fails to ask, however, is who will hold these jobs. That is, what genders, races, ethnicities, and other demographics will green jobs employ, and in what numbers? A few studies, notably this recent offering, at least try to answer the question for education and income levels, which indirectly provides some data on whether minority communities would benefit substantially from green jobs (they would, the article claims).

A look into the demographics of green jobs provides both discouraging and exciting news for whom these jobs might employ in the future.

Consider, for example, this 2008 study by White and Walsh, which lists the key mid-skill jobs in the U.S. energy efficiency, wind, and biofuels industries. All of the job categories come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ (BLS) widely used labor data. If we match those jobs up with demographic data from the BLS, we can see what percentages of these jobs were held in 2008 by certain demographics (the BLS has data for men/women, white/black/Asian, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity). At the bottom, we can also see how much of the overall U.S. workforce these demographics occupied:

BLS demographics percentages for job categories in White and Walsh 2008

"—" indicates that there isn't enough data to determine percentages. Where 2008 data were unavailable, the year immediately before or after was substituted, since the percentages don't change much over one year. Source: My table using data from White and Walsh 2008 and BLS

For most jobs, the results are not encouraging. While women made up nearly half of the U.S. workforce in 2008, they held less than 10 percent of the jobs in most representative categories, beating their economy-wide employment fraction in only two. Hispanics and Latinos, on the other hand, collectively make up more than their average employment fraction in 15 out of 22 job categories, and are less than one percentage point below their average in two more.

The data look similar for representative jobs in other studies, like this example of jobs in smart electricity grid construction (page 6):

Demographic Job Percentages from Pollin et al 2008 "Green Recovery"

Source: My table using data from Pollin et al 2008 and BLS

It’s important to note that these percentages aren’t weighted for the number of jobs in each category, so if there are more chemical technicians than welders, the representation of women is better than it looks in this table. Nor are the percentages specific to green jobs in these occupations, since no one has yet tried to calculate if more black electricians, for example, work in energy-efficient building construction than regular construction. This is part of why the results look the way they do. As authors White and Walsh note, energy efficiency jobs look a lot like regular construction jobs, and regular construction jobs tend to employ a lot of whites and males (and increasingly Hispanic and Latino males).

This does not mean that minority demographics of workers won’t benefit from green jobs. Since most green jobs studies show that investing in green jobs produces more total jobs than investing in fossil fuel industry jobs (which also tend to employ many whites and males), all of these groups of people would likely have more jobs, in total, if more money were invested in green jobs.

What this analysis does suggest, however, is that future green jobs policies may want to evaluate their impacts across races, genders, and other demographic categories. And future green jobs studies may want to include calculations of how their models will distribute green jobs across the workforce.

Will green jobs in the future benefit many classes of workers? Showing that they do may be key to gaining enough political support to continue green jobs-promoting policies. I’ll look at some early forecasts in a future post.

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