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Defining a green job?

By Norman Poltenson


President Barack Obama touts the number of green jobs in the American economy — 3.1 million to be exact — reminding us that these are “the jobs of the future.” The president is eager to expand federal subsidies to “create” even more green jobs.

The president’s claim is based on data collected by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS has defined green as “… goods and services produced by an establishment that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources.” The department goes on to identify five areas into which these goods and services fall: production of energy from natural resources; energy efficiency; pollution reduction, recycling, and reuse; natural-resources conservation; and environmental compliance, education, public awareness, and training.

The BLS breaks down the green jobs by the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS). For example the electric-power-generation industry produces 44,152 green jobs, of which only 4,700 are in renewable energy. The bulk of the jobs, 35,755 or 80 percent of the total, is ascribed to the nuclear-power industry, clearly not the result of any government programs because the industry hasn’t built a new U.S. plant in 30 years.

Manufacturing, according to the BLS, generates 461,847 jobs. The largest single provider is the category of steel mills, with 43,658 positions. That means that more than 50 percent of the steel-mill jobs are green, because the mills rely heavily on scrap steel as a source. It’s hard to make a case that President Obama’s initiatives have had any impact on steel production, because steel mills have used scrap for decades. It’s simply cheaper to produce new steel from scrap.

Another large category of green-jobs creation is found in the NAICS code for paper mills. It turns out that 27 percent of the industry’s employment — 30,473 jobs — is attributable to the use of recycled paper, another practice that is decades old. BLS also adds in engineering services — 100,847 green jobs — and architectural services — another 71, 891 green jobs. Engineers and architects, however, trail used-merchandise stores, waste collection, and bus transportation in creating green jobs.

The BLS goes on to cite substantial green-jobs employment in office furniture, septic-tank cleaning, radio and television broadcasting, and social-advocacy organizations. If you add up all of the green jobs in the solar-electric utility industry, there are more than 30 times as many green jobs servicing septic tanks and portable toilets, according to David Kreutzer, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

So the next time you hear President Obama tout the need for more subsidies to promote green jobs, remember the disconnect between the image of green jobs and what BLS defines as green jobs. In political-speak, it’s back to the future.       


Norman Poltenson is the publisher of The Central New York Business Journal. Contact him at

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