Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Growing a green economy: How are we doing so far?

By Gary Green and Yifei Li, University of Wisconsin-Madison

As a community development specialist at the University of Wisconsin, I work with many rural communities that continue to be interested in strategies for promoting a green economy. The promise of an economy that creates good jobs, promotes social justice, and improves environmental quality is an alluring one.

Wind turbine factory in Newton, Iowa.
Proponents assume there are strategies for overcoming many of the contradictions and conflicts between economic, social and environmental goals (what some people refer to as the triple bottom line). Yet, the green economy is an enigma because there is little consensus on what these jobs are and how many currently exist.

Over the past several years, we have been looking at the size of the green economy and how communities can be more effective in creating green jobs.

What is a green job?

There is a general consensus in the literature that green jobs have three defining characteristics:
  • They contribute to improving environmental quality. Such contribution can be accomplished in many ways. Some jobs deliver products that enhance the environment. Other jobs, such as smart grid operators, involve innovative production processes that reduce environmental harm during production. 
  • They are decent jobs. Green jobs are decent not only in economic terms, but also with respect to working conditions, upward mobility, and other factors that impact an employee’s job satisfaction. 
  • They require moderate training. Green jobs have relatively low barriers to entry; they are available to individuals with modest skills. The poor can therefore directly benefit from green job initiatives that bring them back into the labor force. Some green jobs require similar sets of skills as traditional blue-collar jobs.

These defining features do not correspond directly to actual job titles, making it difficult to assess the current state of green jobs. As a result, many academics and government agencies have tried to operationally define green jobs, and in so doing, to measure the number of available green jobs.

Barron County, Wisconsin, uses biomass to heat schools.
Examples of green industries include retrofitting, renewable energy, public transportation, and environmental resources management.

Current research

The State of Washington’s Employment Security Department has conducted annual surveys of green jobs since 2009. The Washington studies identify jobs that support four core green areas of activity – increasing energy efficiency, producing renewable energy, preventing and reducing environmental pollution, and providing mitigation or clean-up of environmental pollution. Data are collected from surveys in which employers are asked to self-identify green jobs in their establishments. The most recent wave of the Washington State study (2011) found that green jobs represent a small percentage (4%) of the labor force, and the total number of green jobs has declined.

Several other states, most notably Michigan and Tennessee, have replicated the Washington State study. These studies, however, have reached the opposite conclusion. They note that while green jobs currently constitute a very small portion of the total employment, the growth has been rapid in recent years.

At the national level, green jobs have been estimated with two different approaches.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Green Job Initiative has developed a comprehensive list of 333 green industries, using the North American Industry Classification System. Two types of jobs are considered by the BLS to be green – jobs in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources, and jobs in which workers’ duties involve making their establishment’s production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources.

The second approach is the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which estimates green jobs from an occupational perspective. The analytical focus is thus placed on the “greening” of occupations, that is, the extent to which occupations have changed in the green economy: 
  • "Green increased demand occupations" involve the same set of work routines, but the demand for such occupations increase in the green economy. A total of 64 such occupations were identified.
  • "Green enhanced skills occupations" require a re-tooling of skills to better function in the green economy. Sixty occupations fall into this category. 
  • "Green new and emerging occupations" are newly created occupations in the green economy. The report identified 45 such occupations, in addition to 46 candidate occupations that were previously absent in the O*NET system. 

What we know about green jobs now

It is difficult to accurately define and count green collar jobs, but most studies indicate that the green economy has yet to produce many jobs. The green sector grew at a slower rate than the rest of the economy during the Great Recession. Few of the green jobs are likely to be filled by unemployed or minority workers.

The green sector tends to be concentrated in manufacturing and export industries. These industries are vulnerable to international competition and deskilling like other manufacturing jobs. There is anecdotal evidence indicating green jobs are being outsourced and shifted to low-wage sites.

Green industries are also limited by existing subsidies to fossil fuels, especially to the oil industry. Investments and policies supporting the green economy are generally lagging in the U.S. compared to Europe and East Asia. China, for example, has six of the ten largest green companies in the world and accounts for about one-half of the world’s green jobs today.

Questions to consider for the future

A more fundamental issue is whether a green economy can be based on an economic model that assumes that growth is necessary. Is a green economy only changing the source of energy from fossil fuels to renewable energy or does it have larger implications?

A more sustainable approach to greening the economy needs to consider alternative models that are not as dependent on growth. The issue of green jobs and social justice is complicated by the fact that there also may be conflicts between workers and consumers over the benefits of a green economy. How can we promote a green economy that takes into consideration these conflicts?

About the authors
Gary Green is a professor in the Department of Community & Environmental Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Yifei Li is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Visit the Rural Futures Lab website here.

Photos provided by the author.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Creative Ideas for Making Common Core State Educational Standards Work

By Timothy Collins, Assistant Director, Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University

The Common Core standards, approved by most states after a push by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, are scheduled to begin rolling out between now and 2014. Without getting into the larger political discussions and controversy surrounding the new standards, I would like to discuss the Common Core’s local ramifications for communities.

One concern, of course, is related to problematic education budgets in the country’s school districts.

A second concern is partly a matter of community control, a deeply held tradition in the United States. The risk of core standards is that they will make all schools alike. But we already have standardized textbooks, based largely on the needs of states such as California and Texas, with their huge school systems. And frankly, it seems to me that many schools have already lost much of their local flavor (keep reading for more on this).

The question of national core standards need not focus on the purely problematic, however. It can be posed in a different way: How can we creatively use these standards to build stronger community schools?

It is how the new standards are used that matters.

The mission of Common Core Standards states:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.

First, let’s be realistic about what standards can accomplish. I’m pretty sure not all communities can “compete successfully in the global economy”. Yet most communities want to survive and prosper as best they can. This does not mean isolation from global affairs. It entails a realistic assessment of the community’s assets, especially schools.

The school as community asset

Community schools are vital assets that shape a community’s future. Too often, they educate students using an already standardized curriculum, and many of those students move on, draining the community of the energy and vitality of young adults embarking on their life’s work.

I envision using schools as more than an assembly line. The school can be the heart of the community, using the community’s assets while at the same time building those assets.

Imagine if your school’s curriculum both used the resources of and accounted for its environment, namely your community. A place-based curriculum could teach students about their community, engage students in that community, and bring community members into the classroom as local experts and mentors.

It would require moving beyond standardized texts to build a curriculum that meets the standards and keeps students engaged in their home place. It would help students with different learning styles learn how to work in their community to solve problems and create opportunities, to work together and individually to develop crucial life skills and a better place to live.

The school as community development

Much of the recent community development literature has focused on building a culture of entrepreneurship, where middle-class business leaders revitalize local economies. Research also supports the role of schools in promoting youth entrepreneurs who create their own opportunities to stay in the community. The curriculum I described above has entrepreneurial elements.

Let’s take the idea of school-fostered entrepreneurship one more step. What about community schools that create “earthtrepreneurs,” small business men and women with strong math, science, and technical skills to address environmental quality of life issues and opportunities in and near their backyard?

We can complement those folks with earthtrepreneurial artists and other business leaders who share a passion for a clean environment, but appreciate it in different ways and want to share their appreciation with others inside and outside the community.

Easy? Yes and no.

The standards are there. The willingness of school boards, administrators, and teachers to engage themselves with the community is more problematic.

This approach does take extra effort. It takes creativity and extra dedication. It means retrofitting a model of schools and curriculum that have been around for at least a century to fit the needs of today.

Here are some questions for consideration:
  • How does your local school fit into the community?
  • Does it educate students not only in the community, but also for the community?
  • How could a locally based curriculum be used to improve the school’s standards and ensure the community’s future prospects of improved quality of life?
  • What would it take to increase the school’s presence in the community and the community’s presence in the school to help students learn about and appreciate their own back yard?

About the Author

Timothy Collins has been assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs since 2005. His roles include research, policy, outreach, and sustainability. He has authored more than 125 publications, reports, and essays on rural issues, including environmental policy, development, sustainable land use, and education. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.