What are green-collar jobs?

By: Stephanie Watson  | 
Both white- and blue-collar jobs are turning green. An employee installs photovoltaic solar panels on a roof of a department store. See more global warming pictures.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

­You've heard of white-collar workers -- they're the suit-wearing lawyers, sales managers and bankers sitting behind office desks. Then there are the blue-collar jobs -- filled by the machinists, electricians and construction workers practicing their trade in factories and on building sites.

Today, there's a new trend in the job market. Millions of American workers are trading in their white or blue collars for a collar of a decidedly greener tint. With concerns about the environment at an all-time high, green-collar jobs have become the hot new employment sector. These jobs aren't as easily defined as white- or blue-collar jobs, because they can range from manual to managerial, but they all have the common goal of improving the quality of our environment by reducing waste and pollution.


­Energy efficiency, alter­native fuels, public trans­portation and recycling are just a few examples of green-collar industries. Green-collar jobs can be in large corporations, small businesses or nonprofit organizations. Proponents say these positions provide better opportunities than jobs in the traditional manufacturing sector because they pay higher wages and offer better career mobility.

­America's interest in "going green" has skyrocketed in recent years. The research firm Clean Edge noted a 40 percent increase in revenue growth for solar, wind, biofuel and fuel cell energy in 20­07 [source: Sightline Institute]. There are currently 8.5 million jobs in renewable-energy and energy-efficiency industries. According to estimates, by the year 2030, 40 million people -- or 1 in 4 American workers -- will be in fields such as renewable electricity production, alternative fuels, engineering and consulting, as well as energy-efficiency retrofits for homes and businesses [source: MacMillan].


What Makes a Job Green-collar?

Green-collar jobs also include professions in the design field. The architect William McDonough stands in a green building he designed.
Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/­Getty Images

­The term "green-collar job" has been around since the late 1990s. The nonprofit organization Sightline Institute helped coin the phrase. In 1999, its director, Alan Durning, wrote a book of the same name investigating the changing job market in the Northwest.

The term "white-collar jobs" was introduced in the early 20th century to describe salaried professionals who work in an office or sales job. The idea of blue-collar jobs came along after the post-World War II industrial boom to describe more manual jobs.


The description of a green-collar job falls somewhere between that of white collar and blue collar. Some positions are manual -- for example, constructing the steel blades used in wind turbines. Others are managerial ­or scientific -- such as designing energy-efficient buildings or planning out green space for a city.

Any of the following can be considered green-collar jobs:

  • Designing "green" buildings
  • Retrofitting homes and office buildings to make them more energy-efficient
  • Producing biofuels or working in a biofuel station
  • Manufacturing nontoxic cleaning products
  • Designing and maintaining parks
  • Recycling and composting
  • Manufacturing environmentally friendly products, such as hybrid cars and wind turbines
  • Installing solar panels
  • Working on water conservation projects
  • Growing organic food on a sustainable farm

­Determining whether a job is green-collar can sometimes be fuzzy, because some companies are involved in making both traditional and environmentally friendly products. Take, for example, people who work in a mill that produces steel for both big SUVs and wind turbines. Are they green-collar or blue-collar workers? Do the lawyers who work for a biodiesel company have white-collar or green-collar jobs? The answers depend on how you look at the job and its responsibilities.

Proponents of green-collar jobs say they're ideal for people with limited education and skills. Most of these jobs don't require a four-year college degree, certification or licenses. Yet one study foun­d that green-collar jobs sometimes pay higher than most traditional manufacturing jobs -- between $12 and $22 an hour, compared with $8 or $9 an hour in the traditional manufacturing sector [source: Porter]. What's more, green-collar jobs can be an entry point to higher paying, more skilled professional jobs.



Creating Green-Collar Jobs -- Pros and Cons

Barack Obama plans to increase the number on green-collar jobs in America. He spoke in March, 2008 at a meeting on green jobs in Ohio.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Governments -- both local and federal -- are helping the environment and creating green-collar jobs by passing policies requiring energy and water conservation, alternative energy sources, more open space and locally grown foods. Twenty-eight states now require that 10-25 percent of their energy come from renewable sources in the next decade or so [source: Greenhouse]. If a state mandates, for example, that 10 percent of its homes must have solar panels, workers are needed to build and install all those panels.

States have also been courting green jobs from abroad. The Spanish wind turbine company, Gamesa, has built two factories in Pennsylvania. Together these factories employ some 1,300 workers [source: Greenhouse].


On the national level, President Bush signed the Green Jobs Act in 2007, authorizing $125 million for green-collar jobs training programs. Although industry analysts say the money isn't nearly enough to help fill all of the green-collar jobs that will be needed in the future, the program will train about 30,000 workers a year [source: Sightline Institute]. In particular, the program is designed to help veterans, displaced workers, at-risk youth and poverty-stricken families find jobs with living wages.

Green-collar jobs are likely to get a boost from President Barack Obama. He has pledged to spend $150 billion on clean energy projects over the next 10 years to create 5 million new green-collar jobs [source: BarackObama.com].

How do people feel about green-collar jobs? There are many fans, including labor unions. With an estimated 3.3 million American jo­bs expected to go overseas by 2015, it's no surprise that the country's unions are in favor of jobs that, for the most part, can't be outsourced [source: PBS]. Buildings in New York can't be retrofitted in China to make them more energy-efficient. Solar panels for California homes can't be installed in India.

The United Steelworkers Alliance is so excited about the idea of green jobs that it has formed an unlikely partnership with the Sierra Club, called the Blue Green Alliance. The goals­ of the alliance are to increase public awareness of environmental issues and boost investment in green jobs.

Unions aren't the only ones getting excited about green-collar jobs. Environmentalists say these jobs can help combat global climate change. And community organizations see green-collar jobs as a way out of poverty for many people. One city-sponsored program in Richmond, Calif., is helping underprivileged youths learn how to install solar panels.

Yet not everyone is so excited about the idea. Some critics claim green-collar jobs are just another fad that, like the dot-coms, will eventually go bust. They also say green-collar jobs will steal away manufacturing jobs from other industries, such as traditional fuel companies.

­However people view green-collar jobs, there's no question that these jobs are going to be a huge part of the employment sector in the years to come.


Frequently Answered Questions

What is the meaning of green collar jobs?
Green collar jobs are defined as jobs that help protect the environment. This can include jobs in the renewable energy industry, green construction, and environmental protection.

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More Great Links

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  • Baker, Linda. "I'm Bad! I'm Slick!" Fast Company.com, April 11, 2008. http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/125/im-bad-im-slick.html
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