The countless shades of green jobs

Posted: March 30, 2012

Green jobs - or, as our president calls them, the "jobs of the future" - have been notoriously tough to define and count. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recently did it, though, and now it's the result that's notorious.

Facing an admittedly difficult project, the BLS created a definition that is so broad as to make it a meaningless measure of the green economy. Here's a sneak preview: There are 33 times as many green jobs in the septic tank and portable toilet servicing industry as there are in solar electricity utilities.

The meaninglessness of the green-jobs count has not stopped the cheerleaders for green mandates and subsidies from trying to use it to justify more of the same. They point to the nearly 500,000 green jobs in manufacturing. Maybe they have visions of 500,000 people assembling windmills and hybrid cars.

If so, they need to put away the rose-colored glasses, get out the green eyeshades, and look at the data more closely.

The largest green-job producers in manufacturing are steel mills. More than 50 percent of the jobs in steel mills are counted as green, because most of our steel is made from scrap steel. And according to Part 3 of the BLS definition, if you recycle, your job is green. The trend toward greater use of scrap steel, however, goes back decades; it's not the result of green subsidies.

So what do the jobs of the future look like? Here are some industries and the number of green jobs reported by the BLS:

School bus and employee transportation (private): 160,896.

Waste collection: 116,293.

Used-merchandise stores: 106,865.

Engineering services: 100,847.

Architectural services: 71,891.

It looks as if the new green economy the president promised tilts toward driving school buses, picking up trash, and working at Goodwill - not designing green buildings and high-tech equipment, as most imagine.

Yes, many categories include jobs that are green enough to justify inclusion. But they are diluted with so many others that the total can't be used in any debate about the importance of green jobs to our economy or the effectiveness of green-jobs policies.

One reporter gushed about the 44,000 green jobs in the electric utility industry. However, more than 80 percent of those jobs are in the nuclear sector, which is not universally loved by the environmental movement. In addition, since we have not licensed and built a new nuclear power plant in more than 30 years, those jobs are not part of any new economy.

There is yet another irony in the jobs numbers: While social advocacy organizations can claim 20,704 green jobs, the renewable portion of the electric power generation industry (wind, solar, biomass, and geothermal) have only 4,700. So it looks as if more people have jobs promoting green energy than making green energy.

Unfortunately, five times as many lobbyists as workers does sound like the economy of the future.

David Kreutzer is a research fellow in energy economics and climate change at the Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis.

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