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Just What Is a "Green Job" Anyway?

And will these jobs be as plentiful -- and as worker-friendly -- as the new administration would have us believe?

Until recently, most people had never heard of "green-collar jobs." Yet the phrase is suddenly on policymakers' tongues.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has spoken out for such jobs. So has Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Last year, incoming Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis introduced a green-collar bill in the House. Even Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty has noted, "the development of green jobs will be one of the biggest changes in our economy since the industrial revolution."

For his part, President Obama has made green-collar jobs a major part of his approach to the economic crisis. On Dec. 6, he said, "We will create millions of jobs by making the single-largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s."

But will these jobs be as plentiful -- and as worker-friendly -- as the new administration and environmentalists would have us believe? And can green businesses really create opportunities for workers given the current economic crisis?

An Economic Shift

Green-collar jobs are already a growing part of the U.S. economy. As demand has risen for clean energy and environmentally responsible manufacturing, workers are turning out everything from hybrid cars to organic cotton underwear.

In most scenarios, a green-collar worker is one who translates new environmental technologies for consumers, designing and manufacturing goods that use fewer materials and less energy than those of just a few years ago. Environmental groups from the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters say these jobs are a victory for the environment and for workers.

"This is a great time for us to ramp up the level of investment in clean energy," says Pete Altman, climate campaign director for the National Resources Defense Council. "Significantly more people can be employed in energy-efficiency retrofits and building wind and solar plants per dollar invested than just buying natural gas or oil or coal."

One of the grandest election promises -- aside from liberating the nation from foreign oil -- was to create a sizeable pool of new jobs. On the campaign trail, Obama offered a plan to create 5 million green-collar jobs over 10 years. He promised to support this initiative with $150 billion from the federal coffers.

During his Dec. 6 address, Obama condensed the proposed timeframe for this green investment to two years. He outlined green jobs and infrastructure improvements as part of his much larger economic stimulus plan intended to jolt the anemic U.S. economy. Up to $100 billion would go to upgrading the nation's infrastructure, with schools, hospitals and communication systems targeted for "green" improvements.

At the same time, more radical visions for the green economy are gaining support. Two progressive think tanks, the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Apollo Alliance, have argued for "green recovery" plans -- economic roadmaps that emphasize the key role of green jobs.

CAP commissioned a study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Unveiled in September, "Green Recovery: A Plan to Create Good Jobs and Start Building a Low-Carbon Economy" urges investment in retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency; expanding public transit and freight rail; building a cutting-edge electrical grid; and developing wind, solar and biofuel energy. It also notes:

Public and private investment in energy efficiency reduces energy demand and lowers energy costs. … Lowering energy costs for educational buildings eventually means more funds for teachers, books and scholarships. Retrofitting hospitals over time releases money for better patient care.

These improvements will lead to the creation of 2 million jobs in two years, according to the study's authors, Robert Pollin, Heidi Garrett-Peltier, James Heintz and Helen Scharber. About half of the jobs would be in construction and manufacturing. The rest would come as suppliers, retail and other industries ramp up behind this growth. All told, the authors estimate that their approach would cost taxpayers about $100 billon over two years.

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