When Alden Zeitz started the Wind Energy Program at Iowa Lakes Community College five years ago, 15 students enrolled.
This year, 102 students enrolled in the two-year training program for wind turbine technicians, including some students who abandoned another career for the economic promise of green technology. The wind energy industry hasn’t been immune to the recession, but students are counting on the federal government’s injection of $80 billion in clean energy projects to change that.
Stimulus for Green Energy
The American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 is a stimulus package that includes money for solar farms, wind turbines, electrical grid updates, mass transit, and the weatherizing and retrofitting of buildings. Besides its environmental benefits, the spending is expected to produce much needed jobs — about 1 million to 1.5 million of them, according to estimates by some environmental groups.
“We’ve had a slow year because of the global economy,” Zeitz says. “But our industry is poised to recover quickly.”
The clean energy economy accounted for about 770,000 jobs in 2007, according to a recent study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. But job boards might soon be populated with openings for environmental engineers, construction managers, hydrologists, architects, and interior designers with green building training, as well as for directors of environmentally focused nonprofit groups.
Best-Paying Green Jobs
Not all of these jobs will pay top salaries. Many of the new green-collar jobs will be taken by blue-collar construction workers. BusinessWeek teamed up with PayScale.com to determine the highest-paid green jobs. Wind turbine technicians, who earn a median pay of $53,600, ranked 12th on our list of 21 jobs. Environmental engineering managers, who typically earn $103,200, topped the list.
You won’t necessarily need a science degree to land a green job. Environmental companies will need secretaries, administrators, and public relations specialists. And construction companies will need workers to install energy-efficient boilers, windows, and insulation.
“We project that about a million jobs will come out of the stimulus investment,” says Phil Angelides, chairman of the San Francisco-based Apollo Alliance, a coalition of labor, business, and environmental groups that advocates for clean energy.
A Green Recovery?
“It’s inevitable, as the money really starts to flow into infrastructure programs, particularly green projects, there will be job growth here over the next year,” says John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement company based in Chicago.
The Obama Administration is looking to health care and green jobs to help drive the job recovery. According to the Pew study, green jobs grew by 9.1% from 1998 to 2007, nearly two and a half times faster than the overall job market. And the growth will likely accelerate because of growing consumer demand, venture capital infusions, and government reforms, the report concluded.
In a July 15 column in The Seattle Times, Van Jones, special advisor for green jobs at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, identified some green projects getting stimulus funding, starting with a $5 billion investment to make America’s homes more energy-efficient. Among the other projects: $44 million to extend light rail from Seattle’s downtown to the University of Washington, energy-efficient renovations to four public housing high-rises in Minneapolis, and hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in clean energy generation and conservation at veterans hospitals.
Incentives for Growth
William Bogart, economics professor and dean of academic affairs at York College of Pennsylvania, is skeptical of the plan. He doesn’t doubt that it will create jobs, but he’s concerned that it isn’t an efficient way to spend money and that government’s decisions on which companies get funding could be influenced by politics, especially since the definition of a “green job” is subjective.
“If what you’re concerned about is carbon emissions, then you should tax carbon,” Bogart says. “When the relative price of oil and coal compared to hydro, wind, and nuclear goes up, it makes noncarbon energy more appealing. Economically, it’s the same effect but you’re doing it in a way that preserves flexibility and individual opportunity.”
Robert Pollin, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who is consulting with the Energy Dept. on the implementation of the green jobs plan, said much of the $80 billion is made up of loan guarantees and other incentives to encourage private investments, rather than direct government spending. The incentives are designed to attract private investment, which could add up to as much as $180 billion, Pollin estimates.
“If you look at the stimulus program, it’s the first time serious money has been put behind the idea that investing in the environment is good for jobs,” Pollin says. “Only a couple of years ago, the dominant idea was that protecting the environment was bad for jobs.”
Going Where the Wind Blows
Kristjon Luetgers, 24, a wind turbine technician who graduated from the Iowa Lakes Community College program two years ago, is optimistic about his future. He’s trying to convince friends to follow his lead.
Luetgers travels around North America fixing wind turbines for Vestas (VWS.CO), a Danish wind power systems company. Currently based in Alberta, Canada, he earns about $60,000 a year with overtime, and he loves working outside.
“I’ve been on the road for two years, and I love it,” Luetgers said. “It’s a very progressive industry. Not only the fact that you’re helping the environment, but we technologically advance each year. It is a very good industry to be in even in a slow economy.”