Nathan Chan is the ideal worker for the new green economy. He graduated last year from the California Institute of Technology with a double degree in environmental engineering and English literature. From there he went to Columbia University, where he’s finishing up a master’s in public administration with a focus on the environment. Chan, 23, has interned for the Audubon Society, calculating the venerable nonprofit’s carbon footprint, and he’s probably forgotten more math and science than the average environmentalist ever knew. “I want to align my life and my career with my ideals,” he says. Only one thing is missing for Chan: that green job.
Chan was one of some 1,300 students who trekked to Columbia’s Low Library on Mar. 6 for an Ivy League Environmental and Sustainable Career Fair twice the number who attended last year, according to organizers. But while the popularity of the packed fair was a sign that not even Ivy Leaguers are immune from job worries in this recession, it also signaled that green jobs which include everything from solar panel installers to EPA administrators could be a rare bright spot for employment. “The jobs are really coming in this field,” says Karen Marcus, a “green niche coach” who was advising applicants at the Columbia fair. “We’re finally mainstreaming the green career. We’re on the cusp of opportunity.”
A lot of people including President Obama certainly hope so. Obama made green jobs a cornerstone of his economic platform as a candidate and as President; his stimulus package includes $500 million for green job-training programs, along with billions in loan guarantees for green industries. “At a time when good jobs and good wages are harder and harder to come by it is critical we find new and innovative work opportunities for middle class families,” Vice President Joseph Biden said at the launch of the White House’s Task Force on Middle Class Families on Feb. 27. “That’s why we’re here today to learn and listen about how investing in green jobs can help build a strong middle class.”
It’s not clear how many green jobs exist in America today in part because there’s no definite agreement on what constitutes a green job. A study by the International Labor Organization, the U.N. Environment Program determined that approximately 2.3 million people worldwide had found new jobs in the renewable energy sector in recent years, and that nearly 8.5 million people would be working in those industries by 2030. In the U.S., everything from solar power to energy efficiency is potentially poised to take off if Obama can pass carbon-capping legislation, as he has pledged and many of those green jobs could come in the Rust Belt states that are bleeding manufacturing employment today. “What a cap does is open up the market and create a river of investment,” says Steve Cochran, the national climate campaign director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which just launched a website to track the movement called Less Carbon, More Jobs.
Obama has said in the past that he wants to create 5 million new green jobs but it’s impossible to say how many of those jobs will be new, and how many will be simply shifted over from older, less environmentally friendly industries. And with the economy in free fall, green companies are struggling with credit and balance sheet problems just like their gray peers. Clearly, that has an impact; at the Columbia Fair, the number of organizations present was down a bit from the previous year, and many were more interested offering internships than full-time employment. “People with a lot of experience are looking for entry-level jobs,” says Jeremy Esson, a graphic media manager with Green Careers Center. “There’s a lot of competition out there.”
That much was obvious at the Columbia fair, as extremely well educated young people in suits crowded three or four deep around company representatives. But while green jobs may not be plentiful today, they surely have a more sustainable future than the industries that are being wiped out. “Even in a sea of despair we’re enormously encouraged,” says Alan Salzman, the CEO of VantagePoint Venture Partners, which has invested billions in green industries. “Cleantech is going to be the industrial revolution of the 21st century.”
See TIME’s “51 Ways to Save the Planet’