When Green Doesn't Mean Dollars

Oct. 1, 2011
During the presidential campaign of 2008, it seemed that a standard tagline issued by candidates was the promise of green jobs and how they would transform

During the presidential campaign of 2008, it seemed that a standard tagline issued by candidates was the promise of "green jobs" and how they would transform the U.S. economy. This amplification of this rhetoric occurred during the early days of the Obama administration when they touted green jobs and the green economy as key parts of the stimulus bill. In fact, in early 2009, the White House stated that, "One of the centerpieces of President Obama's agenda has been fulfilling the promise of green jobs." So it caught my eye recently when I glanced at a headline that stated, "Number of Green Jobs Fails to Live Up to Promises," and I was left wondering what happened.

A global look at the green economy takes us across the pond to Europe, where governments invested large amounts of capital into this genre with hopes of hitting it big. The Obama campaign often cited Spain in particular as an example of someone the United States should be emulating. Fast forward to 2011, and we learn that according to Investor's Business Daily, "Spain's green economy program destroyed 2.2 jobs for every green job it created," and their European brethren in Italy, "put into a single job the same amount of capital needed to create almost five jobs in the general economy." With that rate of return, it does not take long to figure out why Spain and Italy's economies are in peril.

So what happened here in the United States? I think first and foremost, nobody has been able to explain, at least on a level that I can understand, what exactly a "green job" is. I believe that many in Washington and advocates for energy efficiency would tell you that they are somehow tied to an unproven or to date financially unsuccessful energy technology, and therefore loads of money are subsequently dumped into training for jobs that do not exist. In California, the state collected $59 million from federal, state and private money to invest in green job training. The result? There were 719 job placements (or $82,000 per job). Again, not exactly a great rate of return.

Another complication is that while advocates and government officials like to speak about the future and are ready to invest in this technology or that strategy, they don't often consider things that the private sector thinks about every day, such as "will consumers want this product" and "how will this private-public partnership work?" A perfect example of this is the $5 billion in stimulus money allocated for weatherization projects. The New York Times recently reported that the program was delayed for seven months out of the gate because the Department of Labor had to determine what the prevailing wage standards were for the industry. Then, once the program was ready to go, it never caught on because homeowners believed the upfront costs of home weatherization were too high.

Does this mean that I am down on green? No, not at all. I just believe we need to recalibrate our expectations and look at the solution differently. I think there are green jobs throughout our industry. To me, anyone making an energy-efficient product, selling it or installing it is contributing to immediate energy savings in our country, and therefore their job qualifies as a green job. Using that rationale, if the government is hellbent on doling out money for training, why not make it accessible to folks currently in the industry? I guarantee you that if California had taken that $59 million and allowed its use specifically for skills training by HVACR contractors, they would have seen a high rate of return on their investment in jobs and energy savings.

So after spending billions of dollars on our green economy, what have we learned? First, government investment does not always lead to job creation. Second, government is not the best at gauging consumer needs (I believe Chevy sold 100 Volts this month). Third, green jobs and the green economy are right before us and a part of our businesses on a daily basis, and maybe it's time that we tooted our own horn and received recognition for it.

Jon Melchi is HARDI's government affairs manager. Contact him at 614/345-HEAT (4328) or [email protected].