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Think You Know What a 'Green Job' Is? Think Again

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GREEN_JOBS_b.jpgWhen you think 'green jobs,' do you conjure images of green hard hats, caulk guns, and tool belts? Well it might be time to start thinking about 'green' lab beakers, 'green' drafting tables and 'green' brief cases as well, because the careers needed to secure competitive clean energy industries will also run the gamut from cutting-edge researchers and high-tech engineers to innovative designers and fearless entrepreneurs, according to Dr. Henry Kelly, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency.

Dr. Kelly spoke to an audience of Stanford University students Monday about the steps necessary to educate "the Energy Generation," warning that it will take a generation of the nation's best and brightest, working in dozens of diverse fields, to truly build a clean and prosperous American economy:

So what is a green job? Well green jobs are architects and engineers that build buildings, design buildings that operate at extremely low energy use. They are people that design, manufacture, and install devices in buildings ranging from high-tech windows to lighting to sensors and controls and electronics. It means looking at radically new industrial processes which simply replace previous kinds of industrial manufacturing with sophisticated bionumetics and nanotech approaches, to cutting down the material intensity and energy intensity of production, this is the kind of thing you need to do to stay competitive in the modern world.

If you look at what the nation's transportation system is going to look like, Henry Ford looks like he's toast, it's going to be replaced with an entirely new generation of either extremely high efficiency fuel powered vehicles, electric vehicles, perhaps even hydrogen fuel cells - the people that make and maintain these are going to be operating in a different world that's an enormously sophisticated operation.

If you're looking at where power comes from, of course you have the entire range of science and engineering involved, you mentioned we're relying on geologists to tell us how to get geothermal energy, getting very sophisticate semiconductor manufacturers involved in the production of solar cells and CSP, if you look at biologically based fuels and materials, some of the most sophisticated biological processing techniques.

So this is an enormous range of skills, but apart from the technical skills you also need people who really understand the economics of finance... behavioral economics, people who understand policy, all of these qualify as green jobs and it touches I think almost every academic discipline.

The good news is that if we do this right we're generating a lot of new interesting jobs, not just for sophisticated designers but for people who are manufacturing and operating these.

"The bad news," Dr. Kelly said, is that America's competitors in Asia and Europe are surging ahead to develop competitive clean energy industries and investing in a highly-trained and technically competent workforce:

"If you're looking at how the U.S. fares competitively, we have far from the most highly trained workforce. In fact we're the only country in the top 20 OECD countries where... the average high school graduation rate is going down. We're static in university degrees and other countries are bypassing us, and they're getting degrees increasingly in the sophisticated subjects we need to move forward, both in energy and rebuilding our economy.

So we're facing this tremendous dilemma, where we have these opportunities to rebuild the economy around sophisticated technology that's clean, but the ability to turn out people who are able to actually take advantage of these opportunities is declining. It's something we're incredibly concerned about.

While attention has been paid in recent years to funding new training programs for 'green collar' technicians, building trades, and manufacturing positions, the federal government has only just begun to put resources towards training and empowering the wide variety of cutting-edge innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs needed to stay competitive in the 21st century clean energy race.

"The kind of things that you need to do make an economy that is clean and reducing its fossil fuel consumption is precisely the same thing you need to do to make the economy productive and competitive internationally, which means constantly transforming itself around new technology," Dr. Kelly said. "If you look at the kind of technologies we're talking about, it goes touch virtually every part of the economy."

With Asian and European competitors pulling farther and farther ahead in competitive clean technology sectors, the economic stakes of these investments are high.

"There's little doubt we're in a race for our lives to maintain our productivity and competitive edge to keep high tech manufacturing here in the U.S." Dr. Kelly declared.

In 2007, Congress passed the Green Jobs Act which authorized $125 million in annual funding to develop training programs for workers in a variety of renewable energy and energy efficiency industries. The program was first funded with a $500 million chunk of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus bill), and further funds were allocated in the climate bills now struggling to secure passage in Congress.

While the Green Jobs Act has advanced technical training programs at the nation's community colleges and technical schools, funding to inspire and empower students at four-year institutions to enter a wide range of careers crucial to competition in the clean energy sector has languished in Congress.

In 2009, President Obama's FY2010 budget included a new Department of Energy and National Science Foundation-run program called RE-ENERGYSE, the nation's first program aimed at strengthening America's position in clean energy education. Despite the urgent need for such a program, Congressional appropriators rejected the $125 million funding request.

The Administration hasn't relented, however, and RE-ENERGYSE is back in the new FY2011 budget request now on its way to Congress. The $74 million program would be the first small but critical step to re-energize a new generation of scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs ready to tackle the United States' energy and competitiveness challenges (see this fact sheet for more [pdf]).

Ultimately, however, greater funding will be necessary to help the next generation of intrepid American innovators rise to the nation's clean energy challenges.

"In 1958, right after the Soviet Union launch Sputnik, the U.S. federal government authorized the National Defense Education Act, which invested billions of dollars over several years to try and regain our competitive edge in general science and engineering, and more specifically in the space race," said Teryn Norris, the moderator of the panel, adviser at the Breakthrough Institute, and director of Americans for Energy Leadership, a student-led initiative campaigning across the country for investments in clean energy education and innovation.

With Americans facing a new race to dominate the high-tech fields of the 21st century, the federal government will ultimately need to secure investments on the scale of the National Defense Education Act to keep the nation's competitive edge.

Dr. Kelly and Mr. Norris were joined on the panel by Dr. Lynn Orr, director of the Stanford Precourt Energy Institute and Camron Gorguinpour, director of Scientists and Engineers for America. You can watch a video of the panel here.

Originally posted at the Breakthrough Institute and WattHead.org

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