Commentary: If you want a green career, you need to prepare for it

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If you want to be part of the green economy, you need to be prepared. You need a solid base of training and skills to take real advantage of the growing opportunities. But with that base in place, you can be at the front of the line for a great career that can take you wherever you would like to go and help to promote and protect a clean environment at the same time.

There are several different ways to define a "green job." The first is that "green" is a philosophy -- that each of us has the potential to perform our work in ways that are environmentally friendly. A lawyer or accountant, for example, can go paperless, power the office with green energy, buy office furnishings only made from renewable materials, and meet with clients through videoconferencing rather than travelling to meet face to face.


A second definition is that any employee of a company that delivers environmentally friendly goods and services holds a green job, regardless of the personal job practices of that employee.

My focus is on a third definition -- green jobs are those that in a hands-on way promote energy efficiency and conservation, contribute to the sustainable use of resources, prevent pollution, clean up the environment, and promote the reduction of harmful emissions.

A recent report released by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry classified these types of green jobs into three broad categories: 1. emerging, which includes professions such as energy auditors and wind turbine technicians -- jobs that are newly defined or where few workers have historically been employed; 2. evolving, such as skilled construction workers who are mastering new building technologies and materials; and 3. traditional, which encompasses workers such as machinists who are making parts for solar panels and the quality inspectors who assure the integrity of welds on wind towers along with others who perform the same tasks that they always did but produce green or greener products and services.

The report anticipates that between 2009 and 2012, $10 billion in new public and private investment in the green economy statewide will result in 115,000 new jobs.

Currently the state reports nearly 29,000 establishments that deliver green goods and services with about 350,000 employees. The companies and jobs are concentrated in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions. Although not all of the jobs at these companies are hands-on green jobs, it's clear that all of the jobs depend on the jobs that are green.

The report also lists the number of individuals employed in occupations that have strong potential to be a hands-on green job, depending on the actual work product of the individual, with total estimated employment for 2006 of well more than half a million. Clearly, the potential is great.

These green jobs pay well, in many cases more than $50,000 per year, and the demand for workers is expected to grow. These jobs are here today in the Pittsburgh region. But even though unemployment is higher than it's been in two decades, many good-paying jobs in the green industries continue to go unfilled because applicants lack the required skills and training.

The worker shortages lie primarily in the evolving and traditional categories above. The skilled worker shortage in those sectors has been a nagging problem that is reaching critical proportions, as fewer workers are entering the workforce pipeline in those careers, and legions of existing workers are preparing to retire. Demand for skilled workers -- utility lineworkers, machinists, inspectors, skilled trades, and others -- will explode as the investment market recovers, manufacturing and construction work picks up, and workers begin retiring as their retirement savings begin growing again. If federal climate change legislation passes, the industry growth will be even faster and the demand that much higher.

Contrary to popular belief, the jobs that go begging don't require a Ph.D. or even a four-year college degree. The common denominator in these family-supporting green jobs that are available right now is that they require technical skills -- two years or more beyond high school at a community college or technical school, an apprenticeship or a special certificate or credential.

If you want a green career, you need to prepare for it. There are many choices available. For example, you can go to a community college and enroll in an HVAC technical program, then obtain the additional training needed to install geothermal systems. You can study to become a generator mechanic and to get the opportunity to maintain wind turbines. You can enter an apprenticeship program with the electricians or the operating engineers or another skilled trade and then learn the skills needed to be an expert at installing solar panels or high performance building components, or in operating a green building.

You can obtain BPI and RESNET credentials to demonstrate your skills in assessing building energy performance. You can enroll in a manufacturing career track at a career and technical education center and get a job making components for a fuel cell or hydro-generation plant. You can become a chemical technician and help manufacture biofuels or develop new coatings for wind turbine blades.

There are also some opportunities for those with limited or no skills to become part of the green economy. Weatherization contractors hire entry-level helpers who weatherize homes while also learning new skills through on the job training. In time, a worker can rise to crew chief or higher if he or she chooses to do so. Construction contractors hire laborers and helpers that can, if they desire, enter pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. Landscapers hire laborers and groundskeepers at good entry-level salaries. There are entry-level positions at manufacturing companies where skills can be acquired through on the job training and in-house apprenticeship programs.

Those who are interested can seek these opportunities directly, but many community and faith-based organizations are also successful in helping individuals access these entry-level jobs.

So if you want to get some green in your pocket from the green economy, take a tip from Kermit. There are no shortcuts to a green career. But no matter which track you pursue, there are many different kinds of employers that will be interested in what you have to offer, both now and for the foreseeable future.

Jan Lauer is director of 3 Rivers Clean Energy.


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