Outsourcing Green Jobs: Less Feasible than Traditional Jobs?

In a week that’s seen a Secretary of Labor nominee step away due to controversy over his fast-food company’s practice of relocating technology jobs to the Philippines, the topic of outsourcing jobs is high in the news cycle.

Fears of lackluster trade, isolationist policies that result in protectionist measures, and discourse that embraces nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric are pervasive and unsettling global issues these days. Political, economic, and cultural progress is likely to be stymied by recent political upheavals like the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Brexit. Businesses are now struggling to stabilize against the tide of trade barriers and capital flows.

Amidst all this chatter seeps the topic of sustainable green jobs. Although the list of environmentally-linked careers keeps growing, can an industry that promotes sustainability keep its home-grown jobs at home?

green jobs

Where we’ve been and where we’re going with green jobs

In 2009, the United States joined China, Japan, South Korea, and several European Union member countries in what would become the largest series of clean energy and energy efficiency investments in history. “Green economic stimulus packages are springing up around the world,” Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, noted at a green jobs conference in Washington at that time. “We have no other option but to go this direction because any other direction will lead us into further decline.”

Yet it was also common practice for, say, a wind turbine’s 8,000 components to be outsourced to Asian countries such as China and India.

Then came the Obama administration. With Ken Salazar as Secretary of the Interior, clean energy projects became a top priority. By establishing a system for approving renewable energy projects on public lands, the Obama administration helped create interest in renewable electricity which, in turn, prompted a drop in prices. “I think it is an unsung part of the administration’s legacy, and I think the administration can and should be taking credit for really creating the conditions for this huge clean energy revolution to take off,” says Rhea Suh, who was assistant secretary of Interior for policy management and budget until she became president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Fast forward to 2017. A new, anti-climate action President is in office. President Trump has publicly dismissed climate change as a hoax, indicated great interest in coal and other extractive industries, and pledged to reinvent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No longer are long-term environmental benefits a priority.

Renewable energy loan guarantees and alternative fuel funding as part of stimulus packages seem a long time in the past. Building weatherization, more efficient equipment installation, wind turbine maintenance: how will these be affected by an administration that dismisses anthropomorphic climate change as little more than crackpot musings of a disenfranchised populace?

But wait. If it is U.S. job growth we want — and this means good, green jobs with adequate associated pay scales — then maybe we need to slow down.  How can we capture the large percentage of wind and solar project jobs that have a real chance of leaving the U.S. for countries that are more in tune with sustainability and the call to reduce carbon emissions?

How do green jobs help us on a national level?

Green jobs are an efficient way to boost economies. They bring together what’s best about a country: innovation, hard work, determination, and respecting and protecting local communities and the environment.

They’re also susceptible to market instability and political tide changes. In early December, Leonardo DiCaprio and the head of his foundation,Terry Tamminen, met with President-elect Trump to offer a framework that leading voices in the fields of economics and environmentalism argue combines an economic boost through investments in sustainable infrastructure. Tamminen said, “Our conversation focused on how to create millions of secure, American jobs in the construction and operation of commercial and residential clean, renewable energy generation.”

The President-elect was non-committal at the time, although the media was all over the meeting between Trump and the Academy Award-winning actor.

To be sure, promises of job growth associated with political strategizing can backfire. Remember NAFTA? It’s a swear word that’s returned to the tongues of many, with reminders how original promises to increase U.S. exports and jobs did a flip. Instead of ushering in increased economic opportunities, NAFTA resulted in an average annual U.S. agricultural trade deficit with Mexico and Canada at three times the pre-NAFTA level, to $975 million within two decades of NAFTA’s passage. According to Economic Policy Institute, that trade agreement eliminated an estimated one million net U.S. jobs by 2004.

Strides in green jobs by alternative energy companies

American wind power just passed a historic milestone—as of February, 2017, it’s now the country’s largest renewable resource by installed generating capacity. U.S. wind capacity now stands at over 82,000 megawatts (MW), surpassing the 80,000 MW at the nation’s hydropower dams. And, according to the American Wind Energy Association, wind’s growth is fueling economic development where it’s most needed, like hard-pressed rural and Rust Belt areas. Today, over 100,000 Americans work in wind energy across all 50 states, with over 500 wind-related factories. Altogether, over 25,000 Americans now have wind manufacturing jobs. More than 99 percent of wind farm capacity is installed in rural areas, with the majority in counties that fall below the poverty line.

And then there’s solar. The U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Energy and Employment Report (EER) outlines how the solar industry now employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined. “Our findings would lead us to believe that the right place to invest dollars are in renewable energy rather than fossil fuels,” Liz Delaney, the program director at EDF Climate Corps, says. “These jobs are widely geographically distributed, they’re high paying, they apply to both manufacturing and professional workers, and there are a lot of them.”

Delaney says one of the most surprising findings of the EDF report is that 70% of the 2.2 million Americans who work in jobs related to energy efficiency are employed by companies with 10 or fewer employees.  “What we’re talking about here are American small businesses,” she says, adding that because many sustainability jobs involve installation, maintenance, and construction, they’re harder to outsource.

Market forces point to an overall trend toward renewables that should be difficult to halt. The EER forecasts energy-efficiency employment at a 9% growth rate over the next 12 months — higher than any other energy sector. “I think it’s really all about speed of transition,” Delaney says. “I think the transition will continue, but there’s a role that the federal government can play in supporting that, which is significant.”

If the federal government abandons that role to boost the fossil-fuel industry, she says, the U.S. will be giving up a tremendous growth opportunity. And it will be losing out on a way to fulfill newly-installed President Trump’s pledge to keep jobs within the U.S.

In an interesting side note, the EER described how energy-related sectors are relatively less diverse compared to the overall national workforce.

  • Women are a smaller portion of the workforce in these sectors, ranging from 22 to 34 percent, compared to the overall economy, where women make up 47 percent of the workforce.
  • The percentage of ethnic and racial minorities is slightly lower than the national average for Hispanic or Latino workers (14 percent versus 16 percent) and Black or African American
    workers (eight percent versus 12 percent).
  • About 22 percent of the workforce is 55 years of age or older; this proportion is significantly higher in Fuels and Motor Vehicles, but lower in Generation; Transmission, Distribution, and Storage; and Energy Efficiency.

Veterans, however, comprise about one in ten workers, higher than the national average of seven percent.

Photo credit: christianreimer via Foter.com / CC BY-SA


About the Author

Carolyn writes from her home in Chepachet, RI, where she advocates with her lake association for chemical-free solutions to eradicate invasive species. She’s an organic gardener, nature lover, and vegetarian (no red meat since 1980) who draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+