What’s a green job, anyway?

As environmental responsibility has grown increasingly fashionable, “green” has become synonymous with “good,” whether it refers to products, businesses or lifestyle choices.

The logic seems sound: Something that is classified as being good for the earth should be a reliably positive option to support.

But as green spreads to classify jobs and workers, the choice becomes more complicated, and the impact could threaten the economic stability of people with the greatest need.

The term “green-collar job” first appeared in 2005 and has since experienced a series of transformations across organizational and socioeconomic lines.

“Green jobs” refer to any type of job that contributes directly or indirectly to reducing the negative impact on the earth. The subset “green-collar jobs” is set apart by its specific emphasis on directing available jobs to those with the most severe employment needs. Some examples of green collar jobs are: sustainable energy installation, site remediation, material recycling, landscaping or physical labor.

The term was coined in 2005 by Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of Urban Studies at San Francisco State University. Her definition referred to a living-wage manual labor job that appealed to people with low-level labor skills. The jobs were well-suited to bring workers out of poverty and offer sustainable wages and opportunities for promotion.

Many influential green workforce organizations nationwide continue to apply the fundamental elements of the original definition. But as unemployment rates have risen and touched upper-level class structures, a shift in the term and the population that it serves has evolved among influential leaders.

Two separate analyses were conducted on the distribution of green business in Chicago. The Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance produced one report. The Environmental Defense Fund’s Mapping the Green Economy compiled the other. Between the two groups, 478 businesses were tracked. Only 12 businesses appeared on both lists.

“[Green-collar jobs were] really billed as a pathway out of poverty for individuals with barriers to employment,” said Peter Nicholson, executive director of the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance. “That definition is changing now to have recently unemployed and union workers competing against individuals with barriers to employment. And how can you compete with that?”

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a “Green Jobs Report” last year intended to report the number of green jobs in the U.S. since 2006. The report found that more than half, or 56 percent, of the 751,051 green jobs they identified were white collar–”including engineering, legal, research and consulting jobs. Meanwhile, construction and installation jobs made up just 1 percent of green jobs as defined by Pinderhughes’ definition, roughly 8,741 jobs.

The Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative, a collaboration seeking to promote opportunities that fit Pinderhughes’ definition in the Chicago area, maintains that green-collar jobs should target people with barriers to employment.

However, similar green-collar job advocacy groups, like Apollo Alliance, don’t necessarily target workers living at the poverty level. In some instances, the initial concern for those living in poverty has dissolved to meet the needs of low- and middle-class unemployed workers, Nicholson said.

Similarly, The Middle Class Task Force, spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden and working with the Apollo Alliance, according to the alliance’s Communications Director Sam Haswell, retains most of Pinderhughes’ key components, requiring a green-collar job to be a good job, with adequate wages and opportunities for upward mobility. But it, too, excludes the indication that the jobs be reserved for individuals with low-level skills or barriers to employment.

How one defines a green-collar job could greatly impact where funding is directed, who gets the jobs, and how it’s determined where the jobs are located and where they are not, said Greg Schrock, former research associate with the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s logical to think that people who’ve been laid off from higher-skilled jobs would seek green-collar jobs as well, he added.

Green-collar jobs can function very well to bring people with barriers to employment into the labor market, Pinderhughes said. The jobs pay better, is meaningful for the environment and for the public, there’s on-the-job training and occupational mobility, she added.

“When people talk about green jobs, people talk about it very broadly, from engineers to people doing bike repair,” said Schrock. “And I do think there is a danger of a lack of specificity in terms of who [the jobs are] targeting … I think it’s totally logical that people who’ve been laid off from manufacturing or even finance to say –˜Yeah, I’d want a green job.'”

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