The Challenges Facing Green Job Growth

The Challenges Facing Green Job Growth

There is mounting evidence of a green jobs revolution that promises to transform the workplace across the nation.  Media pundits, business leaders, activists, and politicians claim that the Green Economy will create millions of new jobs, lead us out of recession and, in the process, transform our economy into a 21st century engine of prosperity.

On the other hand, there is also a great deal of rhetoric and hype about this phenomenon and we should stand back and analyze what is really happening. The truth is that a massive economic transition doesn't happen overnight. Training and hiring millions of people for green jobs demands time, financial investment, and an adjustment of expectations about the very look and feel of a 21st century labor force that is fostering sustainable change.

I have worked in executive search and recruitment sector for over 20 years and in the environmental sector for 10 years. So I am very excited by the growth in Green Jobs and, in 2007, my partners and I founded a search firm called Bright Green Talent, which places environmental leaders and professional in green organizations worldwide. Our understanding of the hurdles we've yet to overcome in this field comes from the daily conversations we have with environmental and socially conscious companies about their needs and challenges.

As specialist recruiters in San Francisco and London, every day we see and wrestle with the emerging realities of the green labor market. For example, we see how America's lack of investment in engineering talent has left it short-staffed of renewable energy modelers and LEED Certified HVAC professionals to fuel this green labor revolution.

Indeed, there are a number of barriers to the development of the Green Economy and its creation of new employment. When we are able to overcome these barriers we will make major progress in our search for solutions to our most pressing environmental problems.

1) The Impact of a Recession.   Sean Martin, a Principal at Blu Skye Consulting, a sustainability consulting firm in San Francisco, says that their clients are adapting quickly to the troubled economy: "The nature of the requests [we receive] are getting much more focused on cost savings.  While that element has always been there, it seems to be louder as of late."

Going green can lead to greater organizational efficiency and long-term costs savings, though it's often perceived as an added burden in a tough economic time. Companies that are driven by green missions are especially challenged to prove their worth and excellence. Credibility and long-term relationships are essential to encourage green innovation and, in the process, demonstrate to skeptics that green business practices truly do deliver a measurable return on investment.

2) Talent shortages. The lack of qualified workers is impeding the growth of many green industries, and there's little sign of relief. Bright Green works with Silicon Valley solar companies that have received tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars in venture capital funding, but, even so, can't find experienced businesspeople to put that money to good use. The capabilities and knowledge needed to be successful is so new that even seasoned executives, brought into companies, often need a crash course in the art of effective, green business practice.

To make matters more difficult, organizations are applying 20th century hiring expectations to 21st century industries. As recruiters we consistently have to address the gap between the perceived skill set necessary to succeed in a position and the reality of the marketplace.

People simply don't have a dozen years' experience in solar system design or cleantech venture capital. These industries didn't exist back then, and even having five years experience often means you're an old hand. As a consequence, employers are turning to candidates who have a track record in the general business, even if they have neither environmental experience nor even values. Ultimately, these folks may negatively impact their corporate culture as they may not care about the planet, and will end up harming a firm's credibility in the marketplace. The very people who are needed to grow these businesses sometimes risk compromising the mission of their new employer.

The green jobs movement will need to invest millions in training programs -- and at times take calculated risks -- in order to bring on board green employees who can both do a good job and help keep a company's reputation clean and green. Activists and policymakers who have long lobbied to see legislation passed that supports these programs (as Bright Green recently did with California Senate Bill 1672) still have a lot more to do.

What's become obvious from a human capital point of view is that credibility is the key to attracting not only consumers, but employees. Indeed, on many levels, it's the main competitive differentiator for both the consumers and employees in choosing a brand or company.

3) Greenwashing. Companies are now having to be more accountable and authentic to maintain their green reputation.  Many are seeing the green opportunity as a short-term branding opportunity and face mounting consumer and competitive pressure. The recent influx of "green" products in all categories makes it difficult for consumers to sort out who's green and who's not. Prospective employees also want to be reassured by the organization's green credentials.

Many graduates, as well as experienced professionals and executives, are looking to join a new hybrid organization that combines the entrepreneurial energies of a business with the compassion and impact of a non-profit.   These green social enterprises should flourish and help to develop a distinctive, emerging green workforce. There seems to be a profound passion and commitment to doing things differently, and many employees are looking for more than just a paycheck or a career. They see themselves as change agents, promoting more sustainable business practices, and "green jobs" seems to represent an exciting new labor market. Whatever it is, it's a new system that's inherently different from our current labor force.

Greenwashing ultimately hurts both industry and the planet and incongruent businesses will likely suffer over the long haul. Genuine talent will either look elsewhere or leave once the initial allure fades.

4) The Need for Government Regulation. Underpinning -- and at times unlocking -- these challenges is the need for increased government policies, subsidies and laws. Without these it will be difficult for sectors like renewable energy to prosper.

Currently, fossil fuels receive enormous subsidies and many solar, wind and other technologies are still in their infancy and need local, state and, above all, federal support to flourish.

A clear and tangible commitment from Washington will be critical to ensuring the long-term viability of the Green Economy. Thankfully, 2009 promises to see more progressive regulation with both candidates embracing a forward-looking domestic energy agenda. Internationally, agreeing on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol and creating an international authority for carbon trading and investment will be positive next steps towards an integrated, stable global economy that properly accounts for carbon and guards against damaging environmental practices.

Indeed, change is afoot, and it's keeping both our hopes alive and spirits high.

As for the talent shortages, MBA students are integrating the need for the green business skills into their core coursework, with many programs now offering a "green business" track in sustainability to prepare their students for multi-faceted, 21st century leadership roles. The Aspen Institute reported this year that the percentage of MBA programs requiring their students to take courses focused on business and society issues jumped from 34 percent in 2006 to 63 percent in 2007.

Having built a business on the belief that our economy is capable of becoming truly sustainable, we're optimists. Despite the challenges, we're driving towards a green economy more quickly than anticipated. Green companies that focus on creating meaning in the work place while delivering excellent quality products and services will continue to find the bright, talented people to lead their green teams in pursuit of greater market share and a greener planet.

Paul Hannam is the co-founder of Bright Green Talent, a recruitment agency for environmental business professionals.