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‘Clean Energy’ Transition Promises Wide Range of Well Paid Jobs, Study Finds

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The findings come amid debate about the "Green New Deal."

Shifting the U.S. energy sector away from fossil fuels and toward “clean energy” promises to create jobs that are relatively well-paying and accessible to people without four-year college degrees, according to research the Brookings Institution released on Thursday.

Rather than estimating the total number of jobs available, the researchers focused their attention on the types of employment linked to clean energy, and earnings for those sorts of positions.

The report says these jobs will mostly involve 320 occupations spread across three major sectors: energy production, energy efficiency, and environmental management.

“The folks who have been pushing the Green New Deal, plus clean energy evangelists traditionally, have been right all along—these are really, really good jobs,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program and one of the report’s authors.

“The pay is significantly higher than national averages and those pay benefits extend down the income ladder,” he added.

Some of the positions factored into the analysis are not uniquely “green.” For instance: power line workers, pipe-fitters, even roofers.

“These occupations are not just involved in activities that are already clean, but carry out tasks that could contribute to a cleaner economy over time,” the report says.

Joseph Kane, another one of the report’s co-authors, elaborated.

“It's not just workers who are involved at wind turbine sites, or even just clean energy facilities,” he said. "There's this widespread transition happening across the whole economy where electricians, carpenters and others need to be part of this conversation.”

There are also ties to manufacturing and government activities, he added. “Shining more light on the variety of pathways here, I think, will hopefully add more nuance to this conversation.”

In the Backdrop

The report from the Brookings Institution comes as some Democrats are backing a resolution in Congress in support of a “Green New Deal,” along with other proposals that are intended to curb carbon emissions and combat climate change.

One goal outlined in the Green New Deal framework is to meet 100 percent of power demand in the U.S. with clean, renewable and emission-free energy sources.

In contrast, the Trump administration has thrown its weight behind sometimes controversial efforts to bolster fossil fuel production—such as drilling for oil in the Alaskan Arctic, relaxing pollution regulations on coal-fired power plants, and reworking pipeline approvals.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, is the lead sponsor of the House version of the Green New Deal resolution, which has 91 Democratic co-sponsors.

During an appearance last month on MSNBC she described climate change as the nation’s “greatest existential threat” and said “we will have to mobilize our entire economy around saving ourselves and taking care of this planet.”

“This is not just about what industries we’re going to grow, but again, it’s about how we’re going to grow them,” she added. “We cannot allow for fossil fuel jobs to be better, more dignified and higher wage, with a stronger labor movement behind it, than new energy jobs.”

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who has centered his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on climate change, is urging the party’s national committee to host a debate focused squarely on the issue. He’s called the Green New Deal “aspirational.”

Republicans have blasted the concept, saying it would harm the economy, kill jobs, and strain the federal government’s already deficit-laden finances, along with other adverse outcomes.

“The Green New Deal would bankrupt the nation,” Sen. John Barrasso, a Republican who hails from Wyoming, the nation’s top coal producing state, said on the Senate floor in late March.

“Excluding fossil fuels would snuff out the bright lights of Americans’ prosperity,” he added. “It would threaten national security, would threaten jobs; it would threaten our independence from foreign energy, and all of Americans’ higher standard of living.”

‘Wage Premium’

Jobs in the oil and gas and mining industries tend to pay well. Production and nonsupervisory employees in the oil and gas extraction sector earned an average of about $37 an hour in recent months, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

For the same category of mining employees the hourly average figure was around $27.

The Brookings researchers said they so far haven’t looked at how earnings for jobs in clean energy fields compare to those for workers in fossil fuel sectors. But they did find that compared to workers nationwide, the positions they looked at offer “wage premiums.”

For example, workers in the bottom 10 percent of earners nationwide typically earn about $9.27 per hour, they found. The same segment of earners in the “clean economy” make $5 to $7 more per hour. And they say less than 4 percent of jobs in their analysis pay average wages under $15 per hour, compared to nearly a third of all U.S. occupations.

“The clean economy offers a considerably wider band of middle-income jobs that pay between $20 and $35 per hour,” the report adds.

At the same time, the researchers say, fewer than 17 percent of workers with jobs in the clean energy production and energy efficiency categories hold a bachelor’s degree or more, “suggesting a four-year degree is rarely required to secure the higher pay available.”

The clean energy production jobs noted in the report cover fields like power plant operation, including at nuclear facilities, electrical grid maintenance and construction, and makers of wind turbines, transformers and storage batteries.

In the energy efficiency sector, the researchers include jobs like heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning technicians, plumbers and pipe-fitters, as well as civil engineers. Some jobs in this group deal with making buildings more environmentally friendly.

The environmental management category in the report encompasses professions like hazardous material removal, garbage and recycling collection, and conservation science.

“We’re hopeful that this report helps expand people's recognition of how many jobs actually are implicated here,” Tomer said.

The researchers also found there is generally a “lack of young talent entering the clean jobs economy,” and that those now filling positions they looked at tend to be older, dominated by men and lacking racial diversity compared to all occupations nationally.

“Stressing additional education and workforce development strategies is crucial for national, state, and local leaders alike,” the report says.

It includes some recommendations for how to go about this.

For instance, it suggests policymakers and others develop associate degree programs geared toward clean energy professions and build awareness and commitments around apprenticeships and on-the-job learning. It also recommends pre-apprenticeship training initiatives, possibly focused on minority communities.

“Just because these jobs offer economic opportunity,” said Kane, “doesn't mean that all workers in all places are actually filling them.”

“There still is, I would argue, a lack of visibility for some of these positions,” he added.

A copy of the Brookings report is available here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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