Despite the weakest job market in a generation, the environment and energy sectors are showing remarkable resilience, recruiters and industry insiders say.
"While no industry is immune from the effects of the global recession, there are still tremendous opportunities in the new energy economy for job hunters," said Neal Lurie of the American Solar Energy Society.
"The recently passed economic stimulus package invests billions into solar and energy efficient technology for schools, federal buildings and military bases," Lurie said. "It removes market barriers. But most importantly, it serves as an economic generator, helping to fuel new jobs throughout the industry."
President Obama has vowed to put the country on a new economic development strategy based on clean energy, improved energy efficiency and "green jobs." The $787 billion economic stimulus package he signed into law last month includes $62 billion for clean energy, environmental projects and scientific research, with $500 million dedicated to green jobs training.
The president reinforced his commitment to an environmental jobs agenda Thursday when he announced a $2.4 billion competitive grant program to make plug-in hybrid cars more widely available.
"Show us that your idea or your company is best suited to meet America's challenges, and we will give you a chance to prove it," Obama told workers at the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Center in Pomona, Calif.
"There is quite a bit of activity going on right now," said Steve Cohen, executive director of Columbia University's Earth Institute. "The growth in this field is remarkable. The federal government and essentially the people who get funding from the federal government are really thriving. And a number of corporations are seeing an opening for more work as we move into an era of greater regulation."
This month, Columbia sponsored the "All Ivy Environmental and Sustainable Development Career Fair," which drew more than 800 students with backgrounds in engineering, public administration and law (ClimateWire, March 9).
"The Obama administration has connected the green agenda to the economic renewal of the country," Cohen said. "Students here and at schools all over the United States see that the future is in working on issues like sustainability and energy efficiency."
More than two dozen corporations, a dozen nonprofit organizations and a variety of state and federal government agencies, including U.S. EPA, sent recruiters to the event.
"Everywhere I turn, there's another career fair for us to attend," said Lauren Grochmal of the Hampton, Va.-based Green Careers Center. "Just a few years ago, we had maybe one or two green job fairs to go to a year, and now we have to turn people down because there are so many events."
Groups credit Obama
The Center for Environment and Population is looking to hire, particularly part-time workers interested in conservation, environmental advocacy, lobbying and research, said Vicky Markham, director of the Connecticut research and policy nonprofit.
"From what I saw at the career fair and from the overwhelming number of responses we've received for paid internships and part-time work on issues relating to the environment, energy and climate change, there are many new opportunities and many interested job seekers," Markham said.
"We're adding staff now because for the first time in nearly a decade, the issues we work on and the science-based approach we take are receiving more interest and attention than in the previous U.S. administration," Markham said. "In other words, now's the time for us to make progress on our set of issues, using our science-based approach, because of the more receptive climate in Washington, and it also filters down to the American public, schools, businesses and so on."
Green Corps, a paid yearlong program that teaches participants about organizing and advocating for environmental issues, also had a representative at the New York event.
"We had a record number of applications to our program this year," said Noelle Janka, the recruitment director at Green Corps. "This can be attributed in part to the state of the economy, but mostly we're just seeing a lot of excitement about the environment from pro-Obama folks. The environment today is a household issue, and people are really looking for a way to get involved."
Opportunities in renewable energy
Last weekend, Vestas Wind Systems held a job fair in Pueblo, Colo., to fill 400 new manufacturing positions for what it says will be the world's largest turbine-tower factory.
More than 1,000 applicants showed up, and hundreds more had to be turned away, according to the company. State and city officials had offered the Denmark-based manufacturer nearly $2 million in tax incentives to build its facility in Pueblo.
Jobs related to wind, solar, small hydro and biomass production are expected to receive more funding as "sustainable and clean energy" become even greater priorities, said Heather Burns-DeMelo, the executive director of the Connecticut Alliance for Sustainable Enterprise.
"The government sector, including the EPA, is launching new programs that will make green-collar job training more available to the general public," Burns-DeMelo said. "Here in Connecticut, the state is funding the development and implementation of renewable energy training and a clean energy incubator through technical colleges, which are viewing this as an opportunity to change the way they are typically viewed by students, parents and the greater community."
Late last year, the Texas Workforce Commission offered grants to Texas Tech University and Texas State Technical College to provide training to meet the needs of the wind energy industry. Several community colleges throughout the state have also started offering renewable energy training programs.
The focus on solar, wind, biofuels and energy efficiency is creating new opportunities for researchers, electricians, contractors, project managers, plumbers "and countless other roles," said Lurie of the American Solar Energy Society.
A March 9 report from Oregon-based Clean Edge predicted that the number of jobs in the global solar and wind energy industries would more than quadruple from about 600,000 today to 2.65 million in 2018.
The annual report did warn that the global financial crisis would take a toll on alternative-energy businesses this year, but the technology research firm said the stimulus and other government initiatives would help fuel a rebound.
"The clean-energy sector, like the broader economy, faces many challenges," Clean Edge co-founder Ron Pernick said. "But while 2009 will be a difficult year, we believe that clean energy will play a central role in any global economic recovery."
Market for lawyers, consultants
Long-term prospects are also looking up for attorneys and consultants who specialize in green issues.
"After almost 20 years in the wilderness, environment and energy are among the top five agenda issues for the federal government," said Scott Schang of the Environmental Law Institute.
"Many people expect environmental enforcement to increase, creating more work for lawyers," Schang said. "There's increasing consensus that some of our legal regimes, such as chemicals regulation, need to be overhauled, which will create more work. And to state the obvious, legislation to address climate change is bringing a whole new regulatory regime to the table that will affect virtually all of the economy."
Any short-term stagnation or job loss in the environmental consulting industry does not reflect long-term prospects, said Richard MacLean, president of Competitive Environment Inc., a management consulting firm in Arizona.
"And by the long term, that could just [mean] a year or so," MacLean said. "The Obama administration has signaled that it is more interested in a traditional regulatory approach as opposed to the voluntary-type programs favored by the Bush team. Heavy regulatory enforcement will create a real demand for environmental consultants to help folks figure out whether they have their ducks in order."
Not everyone agrees with claims of an economic boom in the environment and energy sectors. In January, the Institute for Energy Research released a study entitled "Green Jobs: Fact or Fiction?"
"It is highly questionable whether a government campaign to spur 'green jobs' would have net economic benefits," wrote economists Robert Michaels and Robert Murphy about their findings. "Indeed, the distortionary impacts of government intrusion into energy markets could prematurely force business to abandon current production technologies for more expensive ones."
While it is difficult to predict precisely how "greening" the economy will affect the long-term job market, there is unlikely to be a drop-off in interest any time soon, said Burns-DeMelo of the Connecticut Alliance for Sustainable Enterprise.
"The future is bright for people interested in innovation," Burns-DeMelo said. "If you're willing to be a leader and to forge the way forward, while considering the mistakes and missteps of what's led us here in the first place, there has never been a better opportunity."
But she added, "If you're looking for an easy row to hoe, this isn't it. Change is happening on so many levels that remaining flexible, nimble and thirsty for acquiring knowledge are keys to success."