In decades past, maintenance crews replacing railroad ties, city bus drivers and garbage men stinking of discarded coffee grounds were apparently part of what is now defined as the “green” workforce, according to “National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment, Sizing the Green Economy” -  a new report from the Brookings Institution that is making the media rounds. The definition of a “green job” in the fine print of the report brings some perhaps sobering news to those advocating more government support for the green economy.

The report says that there are now 2.7 million “clean economy” jobs in the U.S. What's more, the study claims that these “cutting edge” jobs offer higher than average pay. Although 2.7 million jobs is a pretty small slice of the national workforce, even that count includes 386,116 so-called “green” jobs in waste management and another 350,547 in mass transit. If the study authors hadn't decided to include these two types of work in the “clean economy jobs” category, then the total for the sector would have fallen to less than 2 million.

But getting that impressive-sounding 2.7 million jobs figure into as many headlines as possible could be the legacy of the study. Locally, one story appeared recently in the Lansing State Journal. And websites for broadcast and print media outlets such as MSNBC, the Fox Business Channel, and Forbes Magazine have each posted identical versions of another article that uses the Brookings report to effusively praise the success of the “clean economy.”

That MSNBC article begins as follows: 

"It’s no secret the U.S. is struggling with high unemployment and dismal job growth. But at least one industry seems to be bucking the trend. “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment,” is an unbiased report published by Brookings. It demonstrates that, despite what some might think, solutions to environmental problems are not a drag on federal and state budgets, and can instead create revenue and new jobs."

According to U.S. labor statistics, in 1947 railroads alone employed 1,516,000 American workers. Exactly how many workers were employed as trash collectors or local garbage dump operators in 1947 is harder to pin point. But it's likely that if waste management and mass transit are defined as “clean economy jobs,” then as many or more Americans back in the late 1940s were employed in cutting edge, clean technology jobs than the study claims hold such jobs today.

The “Sizing the Green Economy” report was done by The Brookings Institution in partnership with Battelle Memorial Institute.

The Brookings website’s description of the report includes the following caveat: “… the clean economy remains an enigma: hard to assess. Not only do 'green' or 'clean' activities and jobs related to environmental aims pervade all sectors of the U.S. economy; they also remain tricky to define and isolate—and count.”

But the report does make an attempt to define, isolate and count. One of the authors of the study was interviewed and questioned regarding whether some media accounts and interpretations of the study have made it appear more definitive than it actually is.

Jonathon Rothwell is Senior Research Analyst for the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. He was asked if observations in news media accounts of the study paint a more glowing picture of what the report said about the status of the nation's green jobs than what the report actually indicated.

“I would say that we took a very cool, very reasonable approach in the study,” Rothwell said. “Frankly I don't think the report really is all that encouraging about clean economy jobs. What we concluded was that, if we're going to move from 2 million to 5 million, it will only happen if there are some basic policy changes.”

Then there was the question of considering mass transit in the study. Was that considered “clean” based on the idea that it moves more people at one time instead of them all driving their own vehicles?

“Yeah, basically,” Rothwell responded. “The Department of Energy uses a per person measure for energy use regarding efficiency. It especially pertains to buses and trains.”

But decades ago trains, in particular, were used as a primary means of transporting people. Was that green energy?  Were we more ‘green’ back then?

“I'd say, in a sense, yes,” Rothwell replied. “There was less use of individual transportation.”

Regarding the matter of waste industry jobs being included as part of the “clean economy,” did the report include everyone from the designer of a landfill to the person who picks up the trash from the curb?

“Yeah, that's pretty much it,” Rothwell said.

Despite the apparent misinterpretation of the findings from some, belief in the need for “green economy” solutions appears to be waning sharply amongst the general public. According to a Harris poll released in July, only 44 percent of U.S, adults said they "believe the theory" that carbon dioxide emissions are warming the Earth, down from 51 percent in 2009 and 71 percent in 2007. The online poll of 2,163 adults was conducted June 13 through 20.

Another apparent misinterpretation of the study is the notion that the study shows the “clean economy” job growth “bucking the trend” of “dismal” job growth in the U.S. labor force as a whole.

The account on the MSNBC website puts it like this:

“The [green economy] sector added jobs in a period when a struggling U.S. economy lost thousands of jobs and when the government’s austerity measures, which have already caused thousands of layoffs, will likely cause thousands more.”

But the Brookings study says the following:

The clean economy grew more slowly in aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010, but newer “cleantech” segments produced explosive job gains and the clean economy outperformed the nation during the recession. Overall, today’s clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010, expanding at an annual rate of 3.4 percent. This performance lagged the growth in the national economy, which grew by 4.2 percent annually over the period (if job losses from establishment closings are omitted to make the data comparable). However, this measured growth heavily reflected the fact that many longer-standing companies in the clean economy—especially those involved in housing- and building-related segments—laid off large numbers of workers during the real estate crash of 2007 and 2008, while sectors unrelated to the clean economy (mainly health care) created many more new jobs nationally.” [Emphasis added]

What it basically says is that from 2003 to 2010 growth in the number of the jobs the study labeled as being “clean” underperformed job creation in the economy in general. However, a selected group of “clean jobs' the study labeled as “cleantech” supposedly displayed “explosive” growth.

“At the same time, newer clean economy establishments— especially those in young energy-related segments such as wind energy, solar PV, and smart grid—added jobs at a torrid pace, albeit from small bases.”

So is that the good news?

At no point does the study give figures for this so-called “explosive” growth. What's also lacking is any explanation of how many of these “cleantech” jobs were in the public sector; how many were subsidized by taxpayer dollars and how many were temporary “life of the project” jobs.

Indeed, the media analysis from MSNBC quoted above says the Brookings report supports a notion that “cleantech” jobs are not a drag on government coffers and will put money into federal and state treasuries. But how would this be possible if the true “cleantech” jobs are funded tax dollars in the first place?

Those who did the study don't know.

“That would be hard to say,” Rothwell responded when asked if the 'explosive growth' of 'cleantech' jobs was the result of contrasting a weak overall economy with the continuation of government programs. “We didn't try to get into that. But there certainly was a growth boost in capital investment in 'cleantech' since about 1995.”

Ditto for why the report neglected to mention how many of the “clean economy” jobs were subsidized by the taxpayers.

“It would be very difficult to try to tackle that,”Rothwell said. “There was a U.S. Senate report that tracked subsidies by the technology. That was about the best study I've seen on the topic, but we didn't try to get into that for our study.”

The report also claims that “clean economy” jobs tend to provide better paying employment than the norm:

“The clean economy offers more opportunities and better pay for low- and middle-skilled workers than the national economy as a whole. Median wages in the clean economy—meaning those in the middle of the distribution—are 13 percent higher than median U.S. wages. Yet a disproportionate percentage of jobs in the clean economy are staffed by workers with relatively little formal education in moderately well-paying 'green collar' occupations.”

However, two factors already discussed from the report could explain this:

  1. Public sector jobs often pay more on average (particularly in benefits) than private sector jobs; and
  1. The list of jobs in the report includes that large chunk of public transit and waste management workers - jobs that often require little or no formal education or “green collar” training.

Stay tuned for Part 2 on the study which examines its recommendation that the U.S. follow China's lead on green economy jobs.