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Are Green Careers the Next Google?

Are Green Careers the Next Google?

Experts say a boom may be looming in green jobs that help fight climate change.

By Kristina Cowan

green careers
Global warming is everywhere.

Former Vice President Al Gore's global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Academy Award. Congress, growing increasingly interested in the issue, has held numerous hearings since January. And corporate America is joining the chorus: The U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of businesses and environmental groups, is pressing the federal government to pass legislation cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming.

While no federal climate legislation exists yet, many experts say it's possible within two years, and probable in four.

So what does this mean for America's workforce?

Green jobs, experts say-many in clean technologies, or 'cleantech.' Such industries include a variety of products and services, from alternative energy to energy efficiency, according to "Creating Cleantech Clusters: 2006 Update," by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Cleantech Venture Network LLC. Though cleantech industries may be different, they all use new technology to improve performance while reducing costs and environmental damage, according to the report.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't have current projections about how many jobs these industries could provide. But a BLS economist said given the swelling interest in climate issues, there will probably be new information soon.

Meanwhile, some well-known individuals have been touting the green arena.

In a May 2006 BusinessWeek article, Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm, said: " ... I think the greatest legal creation of wealth today is in the green area - not just in the U.S. but in the developed world. ... There will be an enormous amount of new green technology, new wealth, and we are trying to create the Googles, the Microsofts of the new era."

Greenhouse Gases Begone - Green Job Growth Begin

Vital to fighting global warming, experts say, is the reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases, predominantly carbon dioxide.

The main cause of global warming is human activity, particularly carbon emissions from residential and commercial buildings, power plants and transportation, according to scientists.

Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said green jobs will burgeon in various new technologies needed to fight global warming.

"If we really are serious about addressing global warming, we will need new technology in transportation, energy technology-renewable [energy], technology related to carbon capture and sequestration, new building-related technology [to cut emissions from buildings], air conditioning, insulation, windows, light [fixtures]," Claussen said. "But I think you have to balance that with jobs in old technology that will go away. The world is going to change, and every time you have a change there are winners and losers."

Still, she said she believes there will be an overall growth in green jobs.

Claussen said addressing global warming will drive a need for non-technology-related jobs, as well: state and national government officials to write rules about how new technologies are used; economists to evaluate costs and benefits of investments; and international negotiators to hammer out global frameworks as technology expands.

"No sector of the economy will be untouched," Claussen said.

Renew that Fuel

Renewable energy, derived from various sources such as biofuels, wind and solar, also will be a wellspring of green jobs, experts say.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, an industry trade association, the ethanol industry in 2005 supported the creation of more than 153,725 jobs in all parts of the U.S. economy, bolstering household income by $5.7 billion. There are currently 115 biorefineries in the United States, RFA numbers show, while 79 refineries are under construction and seven are being expanded.

Michael Jones, president of the bioenergy division at The Richmond Group USA in Richmond, Va., said bioenergy is a thriving part of the U.S. economy, and projects continued growth-including more green jobs-for the next several years.

Jones deals with recruiting and staffing for the bioenergy industry, focusing on professions such as construction engineers, plant managers, process engineers and chemical engineers.

Job Average Salary *
Landscape Architect $56,212
Civil Engineer $66,562
Mechanical Engineer $68,468
Electrical Engineer $81,116
Electrical Design Engineer $84,640
Project Engineer, Environmental $64,980
Construction Estimator $65,119
Cost Estimator $57,719
Construction Project Manager $76,600

*Annual Salary is the current United States average annual salary, which includes base salary, bonus, commission, and profit sharing, as appropriate.

"You can expect at any size facility [biorefinery] to generate anywhere from 20-100 jobs, depending on the size of the facility. That's just in operations for the plant, that doesn't count outside vendors, construction," Jones said. "On one level manufacturing in the U.S. has gotten a really bad rap-it's tough to find people who are making things, and I think we are at a turning point where energy is going to be one of those things people are excited to manufacture."

Kristina Cowan is the senior writer for PayScale.com. She has over 10 years of journalism experience, specializing in education and workforce issues. Email Kristina Cowan.

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