"Green jobs" are all the rage among Democrats these days. Their party platform declares: "[W]e will continue to champion sustainable growth that includes the clean energy that creates green jobs and combats climate change."
But what are green jobs? The various definitions are confusing and contradictory. Just as "green" has become a vogue label, meant to signify a commitment to the environment (or to combating global warming), so the Labor Department sometimes slaps a "green" label on regular old jobs. Moreover, with disappointing August jobs figures -- 96,000 jobs created and an unemployment rate that declined to 8.1 percent only because 368,000 people left the labor force -- this trendy focus on costly green jobs is misplaced.
The Labor Department's definitions of green jobs are all over the map. It is applied expediently in many cases, and no one knows definitely -- and persuasively -- which jobs are green and which are not. To President Obama, the definition of green jobs matters because he promised to create 5 million of them over 10 years when he was campaigning. So far, the Labor Department has counted only 3.1 million, but mostly by relabeling existing jobs as "green."
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided the Labor Department with $500 million for grants in research and training for green jobs, funds that were awarded to state workforce agencies, community colleges and nonprofits to train workers in green jobs such as hybrid- and electric-car auto mechanics, weatherization of buildings and solar panel installation. The grants have had a low success rate. Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of Employment and Training Jane Oates reported that of 53,000 people who participated in green jobs training, only 5,400, or 10.2 percent, were still employed in their new positions at the end of 2011.
The department has lists of nonfarm jobs that might qualify as green. Energy from renewable sources makes the list -- wind, biomass, geothermal and solar. Jobs in conservation qualify, and in organic farming, land and water management.
In agriculture, one of the biggest economic contributors to green jobs is corn producers. When farmers produce corn for the table, their jobs aren't green. But when they produce it for conversion to ethanol, they have green jobs -- even though ethanol raises costs of food and gasoline and has questionable environmental benefits.
Consider the military's $510 million, three-year program to develop new biofuels for ships and tanks. These biofuels cost $27 per gallon, as opposed to $3.50 per gallon for conventional fuel. But their producers have green jobs. With the Pentagon's budget on track to be reduced by $260 billion over five years, this might not be the time for a $510 million experimental program.
Installation of a low-flow toilet counts as a green job, but putting in a regular toilet is just plumbing. Like many of the workers that the government is trying to capture in the statistics, the same plumbers would still be needed even if there was no such concept as a green economy.
Some say America needs to promote green technology to keep pace with China. But China is producing solar panels and wind turbines not for electricity production, but to export to America and Europe, where they are trendy. As of 2008, 70 percent of China's energy came from coal. Due to cost, wind and solar provide less than 2 percent of the power for China's electricity. China is importing American coal so it can produce inexpensive energy in its power plants.
For several years, the public has been told that "green energy" will create jobs in America, subsidized by the federal government. In the midst of such a slow recovery in the jobs market, it's time to press reset. People don't care what color their job is as long as they get one.