Green around the collar: ‘Green jobs’ not easy to define

REGION – Employment has occupied only two slots on the color wheel – blue and white. Traditionally, blue-collar workers have made their living with their might and white-collar workers have made their living with their minds. While that is admittedly an oversimplification of the work world, a third color has entered the labor force – green.

"Green thinking in terms of employment in the area is getting traction," said Chris Wendel, regional director of the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Center. "Right now we're trying to come up with a way to measure the economic impact. It doesn't fit any of the standard codes."

In order to measure something, it's a good idea to know what it is. Wendel and others have found that a "green job" is not an easy thing to define. Someone who is hired to conduct an energy audit on a hotel could be said to have a green job, but what about the people who work at the front desk or in housekeeping? The person who works on a manufacturing line assembling wind turbines or energy efficient car parts may consider their job green, but what about the truck drivers who use gasoline to deliver those parts to their destinations?

"I get this all the time," said Ric Evans of Paradigm Energy Services. "Green certainly means different things to different people. I do conventional mortgage inspections, as well as inspections for green built homes. To me, a green job is making your living in a sustainable way. It's using natural materials, renewable materials, and the most local ones you can get. But it's a wide-open book."

Evans, a licensed builder, founded his company in 2006 as a part-time business to make extra money. Today, he's at it full-time and said he plans to hire his first and probably his second employee this summer.

Regardless of how specific the definition becomes, many say Michigan is uniquely qualified to capitalize on the green trend. Because the state is home to an extensive manufacturing infrastructure, a huge coastline, and acres of open land devoted to agriculture, experts say Michigan is one of the few states to have both the geography and the infrastructure to create green jobs in sustainable industries. In northern Michigan, green jobs will be found in the retooling of existing core industries such as tourism and agriculture, as well as newer industries such as wind power.

"Offshore wind installations are a reality in Europe and will sooner or later be a reality in the U.S.," according to Herman Trabish of New Energy News, an Internet blog recently singled out for praise by The Wall Street Journal. "The Great Lakes region has really wonderful energy resources and somebody is going to get really rich by taking on the challenges."

Hans Detweiler of the American Wind Energy Association agrees. He recently told a state legislature committee on alternative energy that Michigan ranks in the top four in the nation for potential for job growth in the wind energy industry. Some expansion has already occurred, and more is predicted. In 1996, a wind generator was installed west of Traverse City; in 2001 two wind generators were installed near Mackinaw City; in 2007, 32 wind generators were installed in the thumb area. According to scientists, this current use is equal to a puff of air in a tornado.

The State of Michigan recently hired TrueWind Solutions to map the state's wind potential. While the interior of the state was found to be "poor" and "marginal," the western coastline from Holland all the way around Leelanau County and Petoskey into the Upper Peninsula and as far as Escanaba was found to be "excellent" to "outstanding" with some small areas even receiving a "superb" rating. The ratings were validated by the U.S. Department of Energy. Wind turbines could be manufactured, installed, and the energy used all here in the north.

But other green employment opportunities exist here, as well. Even industries as unlikely as meeting planning could see some effect. For example, a growing trend in the hospitality industry is for corporations to plan retreats and conferences only at hotels that have implemented green practices. While "going green" doesn't always mean job creation, it can mean job evolution.

Take, for example, the Grand Traverse Resort. The largest meeting facility in the area was recently singled out for a "Leader" award from Green Lodging Michigan, a program of the state energy office. The award hasn't yet created any new jobs, said spokesman J. Michael DeAgostino, but it has educated the resort's workforce.

"Every department at the Resort participates in a Green Committee that meets once a month to track what we're doing from department to department," said DeAgostino. "We're trying to make it part of our culture."

Job creation in the sector could just be a matter of time, and other local hotels have recognized the potential as well, including the Bayshore Resort and the Neahtawanta Inn. Brad Van Dommelen, president of The Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the demand for "green" hotels is a growing trend in the meetings industry. Certain corporations even demand that their employees stay in "green" hotels whenever possible.

These opportunities are all growing, despite the lack of a consensus on what a green job really is or how to measure it.

"(It's) any entrepreneurial employment that focuses its efforts on reducing energy consumption," said Wendel, when pressed for a definition. "There already are jobs in the green area but you just can't quantify them." BN