Green Jobs and Educating the Sustainability Managers of the 21st Century

In February, I wrote about the encouraging growth of sustainability studies in the United States. In fact, I am now directing three masters programs in that field: A one year MPA in Environmental Science and Policy, a Master of Science in Sustainability Management, and a soon to be announced Executive MPA Concentration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management. Each is oriented toward a different type of student. All three of these programs offer professional degrees designed to prepare people to manage staff working on sustainability. It is therefore encouraging to report that last week, for the first time, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics began an official count of Green Jobs in the U.S. Economy. The good news is that there are currently 3.1 million people holding those jobs in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

In 2010, 3.1 million jobs in the United States were associated with the production of green goods and services, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Green Goods and Services (GGS) jobs are found in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources. GGS jobs accounted for 2.4 percent of total employment in 2010. The private sector had 2.3 million GGS jobs and the public sector had 860,300. Manufacturing had 461,800 GGS jobs, the most among any private sector industry.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis deliberately understates the green jobs in the economy by focusing on jobs that cerate outputs specifically designed for environmental benefit. Jobs that reduce the environmental impact of existing production are not counted in this analysis. Again, according to the Bureau:

The BLS green jobs definition contains two components, an output-based approach and a process-based approach. Output-based jobs are jobs associated with producing goods or providing services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources. Process-based jobs are jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources. This news release covers the output approach only. The process approach data will be released later this year. (emphasis added)

Even with this relatively narrow definition, in 2010, California had 338,400 green jobs (2.3 percent of total state employment), followed by New York with 248,500 (3.0 percent of total state employment), and Texas with 229,700 (2.3 percent of total state employment).

The evolving definition of green jobs makes it difficult to assess the relative importance of this part of the economy. An excellent study by Mark Muro, Jonathan Rothwell, and Devashree Saha for the Brookings Institution observed that:

The clean economy grew more slowly in aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010, but newer "cleantech" segments produced explosive job gains and the clean economy outperformed the nation during the recession. Overall, today's clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010, expanding at an annual rate of 3.4 percent.

The part of the economy that is "purely green" may be growing more slowly than the rest of the economy, but what about the jobs, still to be measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that have helped reduce the energy and pollution-intensive elements of existing production processes? While it is clear how analysts can count jobs generated to build solar cells, what about jobs that help make an appliance that uses less energy today than it used to consume? It is not clear how to quantify those jobs devoted to making more efficient appliances. Anyone who buys a new air conditioner or refrigerator knows they have benefited from the addition of energy efficiency as a routine design parameter. The new fridge and AC uses a lot less energy than the old one. The design and production of those appliances may or may not be counted in the "green economy," but some proportion of them should be, and I assume will be when the BLS completes its work.

In some ways, the specific definition of a green job is less important than the fact that it is now measured and considered important enough to track. It is quite clear to me that although the green economy will continue to grow, most of today's public and private sector managers are poorly prepared to manage the work in this new part of the economy. People with traditional MBAs, JDs and MPAs and other management masters degrees do not have enough science, design and engineering to manage work related to the physical dimensions of sustainability. Finance, marketing, liability, torts, contracts, accounting, strategy and human resource management are important, but no longer sufficient. The managers of the 21st century need to be integrators and cross-disciplinary problem solvers. This requires greater scientific literacy than these traditional management and leadership degrees have typically required.

Each of the three masters programs I am working in requires some science. The Executive MPA requires one integrative course in environmental science. The Master of Science in Sustainability Management requires three courses (9 credits) in the "physical dimensions of sustainability." The MPA in Environmental Science and Policy requires six 2-point courses (12 graduate credits) in environmental science. All of these programs require students to solve management problems by integrating science, economics, policy and management. Our goal as sustainability educators is to prepare people to serve as leaders of the emerging green economy. No matter how quickly the green sector of the economy grows, its management ranks are now filled with people who are not trained sustainability managers. I think that is why I see so much interest in programs designed to train sustainability leaders.

As I mentioned last month, student interest in sustainability programs continues to grow. One of my jobs at Columbia is to meet with perspective students at information sessions where we discuss these programs. We attract students at all stages of their careers for sustainability study. Some have only worked for a few years, while others are experienced executives seeking to change their careers. Prospective students are excited about the field, but also apprehensive, since the current U.S. economy doesn't encourage risk-taking.

As the parent of two college students, I have a clear sense of the uncertainty that today's young people face as they approach the world of work. When I was at that point of life I was completely oblivious to the challenges ahead, or the need to prepare. The students I work with today have been building their resumes since preschool. In contrast, my early development as a student and a professional was a series of accidents. I'm sure my approach, and that of many of my contemporaries, would not work in today's more competitive, global marketplace.

I see a deep concern for the future in many of the people I teach, and in many of the prospective students I meet. That is coupled with careful and rigorous analysis of the proper preparation for the careers of the 21st century. I would not argue that we have all the answers and have developed the perfect curriculum for sustainability management. As in anything new and cutting edge, I'm confident we are making our share of mistakes. However, we are approaching the new field of sustainability management as scholars, educators, practitioners and students. As we succeed and fail, we are learning and building this new field of study. It is gratifying that even the Bureau of Labor Statistics sees the changes underway and has started to count and analyze the nation's green jobs.