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Why it’s hard for the government to create green jobs

How many jobs do these things create? (AES)

Not too long ago, we heard a lot about "green jobs": The win-win equation for boosting employment while retrofitting America's buildings, energy systems, and transportation infrastructure for a cleaner future. In 2009, the federal stimulus act poured $595 million into green jobs programs, most of which went towards equipping people with the skills to particulate in the new green economy. Four years later, it's still not clear what all the cash for green jobs achieved--and a Government Accountability Office report issued last week illustrates the difficulty of trying to foster an emerging industry by pumping money into it.

The scope of the initiative was large, but fragmented and decentralized. Green jobs funding went to 103 training programs in all but four states, run by non-profit organizations, government agencies, and some organized labor groups. The reason we're still not sure what that money achieved is that not all the data is in: By the end of 2012, 40 percent of the programs hadn't reported results. So far, though, it appears that while the programs trained even more people than they'd anticipated, they only achieved 55 percent of the job targets that had been set (that's slightly better than a very pessimistic inspector general's report from last year).

Part of the measurement issue is that not all training has been oriented towards getting someone an entirely new "green job," but rather adding skills to an existing position, or even just counting a job that someone might already be doing as "green." The list of programs that received funding include training manufacturing workers to be on the lookout for waste, or even training concrete pourers who worked on wind turbine sites, and emergency medical technicians trained to perform rescues on wind turbine towers. "Under Labor’s current framework, almost any job can be considered green if a link between the employee’s tasks and environmental benefits can be made," the report says. Those are all useful skills--just ones that are hard to count in measurements of new positions created.

The other challenge: America's green economy hasn't moved forward as quickly as anticipated, with China dominating the wind industry, and a number of large clean technology investments not delivering on expectations. What's more, the money for job training was largely deployed before the Bureau of Labor Statistics had a chance to carefully study what jobs were actually available, and the skills required to do them. (They did finally develop definitions and methods for tracking green jobs, but budget sequestration forced BLS to cut the program this spring.)

"A fundamental consideration is whether it is prudent to implement job training programs for an emerging industry before more is known about the demand for skills and workers," the report concluded. "Another consideration is whether it would be more or less effective for federally-funded training programs to focus on providing valuable green skills and credentials applicable on a wide variety of jobs, rather than to devote considerable attention to what is defined as a green job."

This doesn't mean federal investment in bolstering the green economy isn't effective--a lot of it has proven to be quite valuable. It just means that trying to create hundreds of thousands of jobs on a tight time frame when not much is known about where they're actually needed might not deliver the best possible results.