Jonathan J. Higuera

Sustainability: The key objective of a green economy opens the door to new careers

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As the state’s economy struggles to regain momentum to pre-recession levels, a question on many people’s minds is whether green jobs will play a significant role in the preservation of middle-class jobs. Certainly the rhetoric about the potential for clean-related job creation has been reinforced at the highest levels. From President Obama to local economic development officials, the talk about a new job machine based on sustainable products and services has been hot and heavy.

Yet, the current debate over green jobs has “frequently been short on facts and long on speculation, assertion and partisanship,” according to the Brookings Institution, which last year released a groundbreaking report on the depth and size and of the green economy in the U.S.

But the facts are coming into view. According to a report that largely mirrors the Brookings report, the U.S. Department of Labor last month revealed that the green economy represents a modest, but growing, piece of the overall economy. Estimates are that green jobs made up about 2.4 percent of all jobs, or 3.1 million jobs. This is more jobs than in the fossil fuels and bioscience sectors, but far less than in the health care industry. Arizona’s portion of those jobs was about 49,717, making up about 2.1 percent of the state’s 2.4 million jobs. That puts Arizona in the lower middle portion when ranked among all states, behind such giants as California (338,400 green jobs), New York (248,500), Texas (229,700), Pennsylvania (182,200), Illinois (139,800) and Ohio (126,900). 

Because the report only captured output, which means it tracked jobs related to making and delivering green products and services, it likely didn’t capture the cottage industries that have arisen around the environmental movement. However, it does provide a snapshot and benchmark that the nation can now use to track the industry’s growth, and provides a workable definition of what constitutes a green job. 

In the Brookings report, which analyzed green jobs from 2003 to 2010 in every state and in the top 100 metro areas, the Phoenix metro area ranked 32nd among the top 100 metro areas based on the number of clean-tech jobs, and 54th when it ranked the number of clean-tech jobs as a share of total employment. The sector grew 2.5 percent from 2003 to 2010. 

One possible explanation for why Arizona lags is that manufacturing has the greatest number of green goods and services jobs. And, while Arizona has had a decent manufacturing base in aerospace and defense, it is nowhere near the behemoth that some Midwestern and East Coast states are, nor is it as large as California and Texas. Examples of these green manufacturing jobs include iron and steel from recycled inputs, air conditioning and refrigeration equipment meeting certain standards, hybrid cars and parts, and pollution mitigation equipment. 

One opportunity for Arizona could be in the construction sector of the green industry. Construction-related green jobs accounted for nearly 7 percent of all green jobs. The green jobs associated with this industry include weatherization, solar installation and other retrofitting projects to reduce household energy consumption. 

In the Grand Canyon state, there is a consensus that we should be a leading producer in solar production and installation. Yet, getting there won’t happen just because the state has the highest concentration of sun in the U.S. In its marketing materials to outside companies, the Greater Phoenix Economic Council touts the metro area’s strong local demand for solar panels and close proximity to California. The state has the country’s third highest number of jobs in the solar industry. But, those marketing come-ons aside, the state is in a global race when it comes to solar production. Currently, Arizona trails Germany and Spain in its production of solar panels and ancillary equipment. 

However, the state has several factors in its favor when it comes to the global race for green tech jobs: higher education has stepped up in the areas of research and development, as has job worker training to help prepare for the anticipated growth. 

At Arizona State University’s School of Global Sustainability, established in 2007, a strong talent pool of professors and staff with cutting-edge knowledge of sustainability issues has been assembled. They, in turn, are teaching and training students about how to address the pressing environmental, economic and social challenges that sustainability incurs, especially as it relates to urban areas. 

The interaction of higher education with research and development is exactly the formula that has aided the creation of great industries. Think Internet technology here. 

When you add in Arizona’s natural advantage in the solar energy field, one can see why the state believes it has what it takes to be a global competitor. 

Solar may be the most frequently mentioned renewable energy source for our state, but it certainly is not the only area ripe for exploration. ASU’s R&D efforts in nanotechnology could also yield some surprising breakthroughs. For example, the use of nano-particles in windows could conceivably lead to products that are not presently on the radar. It could lead to windows that let more light in during the winter and repel more light during the hot summer months. 

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