This story was updated at 3:51 p.m. EDT.
The Department of Labor is falling short of its goal for placing workers into "green jobs," partly because the agency was forced to initiate training programs before the government had determined the scope of and demand for such jobs, according to the Government Accountability Office.
GAO's new report is sure to reinvigorate Republican criticism of the administration's focus on green jobs. Labor's program was the largest federal effort specifically aimed at training workers for jobs in the green sector. In total, the agency spent about $500 million in stimulus funds to support more than 100 training programs across the country.
While the programs attracted more participants than expected, the success of the training is uncertain. As of December, 60 percent of training programs had ended; those programs reported placing only 55 percent of participants into jobs.
But that number could change as the remaining programs wind down and report data. Labor officials have also begun an analysis of state unemployment insurance data; they say that 83 percent of participants who found a job after training in fiscal 2011 kept that job for at least 6 months.
"Despite the sizeable investment in green jobs, the green jobs training programs have faced a number of implementation challenges and final outcomes remain uncertain, particularly regarding placement into green jobs," GAO analysts wrote in the report. "A number of these challenges have stemmed from the need to implement the grants quickly and simultaneously before green jobs had been defined and more had been learned about the demand for green skills."
The report details a problem that Republicans have long emphasized: the vague definition of a so-called green job. GAO analysts interviewed 11 grant recipients and found that definitions varied widely. The recipients counted jobs as green if they could link the job to the green industry, to the production of goods that benefit the environment, to the performance of services that might lead to environmental benefits, or to "environmentally beneficial work processes."
That meant the inclusion of everything from the pouring of concrete for a wind turbine to the application of paint in an efficient manner to the installation of high-efficiency heating systems. Most jobs were in the construction or manufacturing sector.
The wide variety of jobs "illustrates just how broadly Labor's definition can be interpreted and raises questions about what constitutes a green job -- especially in cases where the job essentially takes the form of a more traditional job," GAO analysts wrote.
Grant recipients also offered several reasons for why their training programs did not always translate into jobs for participants. Most of those interviewed pointed to the slow economic recovery; local housing markets, for example, were slow to pick up and thus demand for construction workers was low. Most recipients also pointed out that most green jobs overlapped with traditional jobs such as carpentry or electrical work, where a high number of unemployed workers were competing for few openings.
Most also said that renewable energy sectors, such as solar power, had not grown in their regions as fast as predicted.
But some recent news signals that the green job market might be picking up. In March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that green energy jobs grew at four times the rate of other jobs from 2010 to 2011.
Although green jobs accounted for just 2.6 percent of employment in 2011, data show they grew 4.9 percent from 2010. Total jobs grew 1.2 percent, with health care, often seen as a growing sector, increasing by 1.8 percent (Greenwire, March 20).
Republicans have been wary of such statistics. Last year, House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) accused the Obama administration of inflating green jobs estimates as part of a "false propaganda" campaign intended to mislead the American people about the success of the many government investments in green energy.
Issa also questioned the value of Labor's green jobs training program last year, when Labor's inspector general found that the training programs had placed only 8,000 participants into jobs, or about 10 percent of the eventual target (Greenwire, Feb. 2, 2012).
In a statement this afternoon, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) argued that the GAO report was in line with past criticism from committee Republicans.
"The GAO report is more proof that the Department of Labor's Green Jobs Training Program was flawed from the start," said Jordan, who heads the panel's Subcommittee on Economic Growth, Job Creation and Regulatory Affairs. "The Committee's work has demonstrated that this was a wasteful program designed to reward allies of the administration. That the Department has only hit 55 percent of its job placement targets is further evidence that 'green jobs' were a special-interest-driven pipe dream and not the economic panacea the President promised."