Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A Brookings report finds that jobs in the clean energy, efficiency, and environmental sectors offer higher salaries than the U.S. average.
The much-hyped Green New Deal, which laid out the broad strokes of a U.S. transition to green energy by 2030, failed in Congress. But its champions haven’t given up. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and other like-minded legislators are working on a series of smaller bills to achieve the same end. What GND proponents emphasize is that addressing climate change could be a comprehensive fix—not just for warding off an environmental catastrophe, but for a host of interlinked societal problems, including economic inequality.
“To get out of this situation, to revamp our economy, to guarantee dignified jobs for working Americans … we will have to mobilize our entire economy around saving ourselves and taking care of this planet,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
But what are these jobs she’s envisioning, and just how dignified are they likely to be?
A new analysis by researchers at the Brookings Institution takes a stab at answering that question by unpacking the characteristics and demographics of the sectors that may grow as America transitions to clean energy. They find that green job evangelists like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are right about one thing: Today’s green-energy occupations are higher paying, with a lower barrier to entry, than comparable U.S. gigs.
“We’re talking about real differences in what delivers a quality of life right for the household that individuals are part of,”said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Program and co-author of the report. “That really matters in a time of of challenges around economic inclusion.”
AOC didn’t start the Green Job hype machine: In some form or another, forward-thinking parties on both sides of the aisle have been promoting the notion that decarbonizing offers economic opportunity for decades, especially for parts of the country reeling from the decline of manufacturing or extractive industries. Since the Paris climate accords of 2016 many mayors have been working furiously to set their own goals in keeping with the spirit of that international agreement. The U.S. ultimately withdrew from the accord, but places like Washington D.C., New York City, and the state of California have made legislative strides at the local level. Even the Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, is all in on the green energy bandwagon.
But the intense AOC-powered coverage of the Green New Deal—not to mention ever-more-alarming news about the dire planetary consequences of failing to make this energy transition—makes the current round of green job ballyhoo a bit more urgent. “It makes it feel very real and very now,” Tomer said.
The green energy industry currently includes occupations in three broad sectors: clean energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management. The jobs in that first category range from power plant operators and wind turbine technicians to electricians, solar panel installers, and meter readers who construct, operate, and maintain electric grids. The second category—energy efficiency—includes occupations that require skilled trades, like HVAC mechanics, as well as those that ask for specialized STEM education. Architects and engineers, for example, can design more energy efficient products. Finally, a green economy will need an army of workers to make sure everything is on track. So workers in the third category include conservation scientists, engineers, urban planners, policymakers, and regulators.
For jobs in these sectors, the Brookings researchers find that mean hourly wages are anywhere from 8 to 19 percent higher than the national average wage. And for entry-level jobs at the bottom of the pay spectrum, they find a $5 to 10 per hour pay premium compared to other jobs.
The clean energy production and efficiency sectors include jobs like electricians and carpenters, which require a lower threshold of formal education. Around 50 percent of workers in these two sub-industries have completed only high school or less, and yet they earn higher wages than their counterparts in other industries.
The Brookings findings have been received warmly by Green New Deal proponents like Ocasio-Cortez. “The math adds up,” said Corbin Trent, a spokesperson for the New York congresswoman. “When we say that this is not only an opportunity to save the planet from climate catastrophe, this is also a great opportunity to save our economy and develop high-wage jobs, the folks that look into this agree that that’s the case.”
But there is, as always, a catch. Many jobs in these same sectors still require scientific knowledge and technical skills that many Americans—especially lower-income people of color—currently lack. Most of the current workforce in these industries is older, whiter, and more male.
“That gives us concern that economically disadvantaged groups are not currently, or potentially in the future, going to tap into these these income-related benefits,” Tomer said. Women make up less than 20 percent (first graph below), and Hispanic and African Americans comprise less than 10 percent of the green energy workforce today (second graph below).
The Brookings analysis makes no predictions on what will happen in the future: The types of green energy jobs and the profile of workers who do them could become more equitable—or less. The report is more about “stressing that this is what the workforce looks like right now,” Tomer said. “There is going to be more work coming—we do confidently suppose—in these sectors, so how do we address these gaps that exist today?”
The future of work in a nation shaped not only by climate disruption but by job-eating new technology has been the focus of much attention. Previous research by Brookings has shown how administrative and manufacturing positions are on the chopping block in small towns across America. Another recent study finds that women—particularly Hispanic women—stand to lose more jobs as AI takes over. And there’s a big question mark around the economic impact of drawing back from fossil fuels. The AFL-CIO opposed the original Green New Deal in part because of concerns about the fate of union members in the mining, oil, and natural gas industries. The labor union’s president, Richard Trumka, said that “workers’ interests weren’t completely figured into it.”
So, how do we make sure that the green energy transition is an opportunity, not a blow—and prepare those who could lose jobs for the new ones being created?
To start, a higher emphasis on STEM and energy science education at all levels, a focus on on-the-job apprenticeships, and workforce training programs that specifically target underrepresented groups would help, Brookings researchers recommend. All of that will have to be done primarily at the local levels, with community colleges, technical schools, local employers, and city officials all playing a role.
“There could be in the future a rain down of support from the federal level,” Tomer said. “The actual programming? It’s going to take place in cities and suburbs and smaller, rural communities.”