There Are Way Fewer Green Jobs Than You Think

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Just 2.4 percent of U.S. workers are employed in green jobs -- and not all of them are high tech. 

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A worker at a wind turbine manufacturer in Newton, Iowa. Reuters

Thanks to the failure of government-backed solar panel-maker Solyndra, the 2009 stimulus' large investment in green energy projects has become one of the more controversial early legacies of the Obama administration. Much of the argument has been waged on philosophical grounds. The left thinks government should cultivate incipient, high-tech industries that could provide good jobs in the future. The right think government shouldn't be in the business of "picking winners and losers."

However, as Noam Scheiber writes in his recent book, The Escape Artists, there was another problem with the Recovery Act's green energy focus -- it wasn't a particularly effective way to jumpstart the economy. Obama's own advisors told him so much. Scheiber writes: 

Energy was a particular obsession of the president-elect's, and therefore a particular source of frustration. Week after week, Romer would march in with an estimate of the jobs all the investments in clean energy would produce; week after week, Obama would send her back to check the numbers. "I don't get it," he'd say. "We make these large-scale investments in infrastructure. What do you mean there are no jobs?" But the numbers rarely budged .The U.S. clean energy industry was so microscopically small that even doubling or tripling the size of it, a major accomplishment that could take years, would produce an insignificant number of jobs relative to the size of the country's work force.

I couldn't help but think of that passage when I looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' recent green jobs report. According to its findings, as of 2010 there were 2.3 million private-sector workers producing environmentally friendly goods or services. Another 860,000 public sector workers also worked in those fields. In total, they represented 2.4 percent of the U.S. work force. 

That's not nothing, but it's also not enormous. Altogether, it's a little less than half the size of today's anemic construction sector. And once you begin parsing the BLS figures, it becomes fairly clear how small the cutting-edge end of the green economy really is, even post stimulus. Below, I've graphed the government's figures, which break out green jobs by industry sector. 

BLS_Green_Jobs_By_Industry.png

Many of these jobs sectors involve run-of-the-mill conservation projects, such as sustainable forestry. Others, such as waste services, include old standby industries such as recycling. More than half of the "green jobs" in utilities actually belong to the nuclear power industry -- an important source of zero emissions electricity to be sure, but not exactly what most environmentalists picture when they think of a 21st century green job. 

Manufacturing, the industry many seem to believe has the most to gain from investments in alternative energy, does lead the way in private private sector green jobs. But those 461,000 workers, only some of whom are connected to the energy industry, make up just 4 percent of manufacturing employment overall. Doubling the total would have replaced a good chunk of the factory jobs lost in the recession. As Scheiber notes, though, that would have taken years.

We should hope that the green jobs sector grows. Creating environmentally sustainable sources of energy and more efficient products will be one of the most pressing, and potentially profitable, challenges of the 21st century. The government may well need to play a role to make it happen. But given the small size of the sector, pumping money into it probably wasn't a great way to boost employment in the near term.  

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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