Can green jobs solve unemployment?

August 29, 2012

The worker in the upper left controls cement-pouring robotically. (Photo by Sherry Piros)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When discussing green careers, a common response is to think in terms of categories such as energy auditors, recycling, electric vehicles, green construction, solar power and wind energy.

While jobs do exist in these categories, Jason LaFleur, who made a presentation about green jobs at the Aug. 11-12 Illinois Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair at Ogle County Fairgrounds, remarked that many jobs involve expanding existing jobs to cover green aspects that require an employee to learn new skills to perform the “green portion” of the job.

Federal statistics about green jobs are organized into two categories: green technologies and practices and green goods and services. The statistics are not complete and are most useful in terms of reporting trends in employment rather than the number of current employees.

The most frequently reported types of green technologies used by firms surveyed involve improving energy efficiency and reducing wastes. Some of the most accurate figures come from sales of Energy Star appliances and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks as their presence in the marketplace is driven by federal mandates. Only 2 percent of the firms surveyed reported using renewable electricity, heat or fuel.

Efficiency and renewable energy have been experiencing rapid growth over the past decade, but the industry remains dependent on high energy prices and government mandates.

In the book Lights in the Tunnel, Martin Ford postulates that accelerated growth in technology will continue to have a highly disruptive impact on global and local economies.

While politicians seeking public office often campaign on the promise of being able to generate more jobs than their opponents, they fail to address the issue of declining mass employment opportunities as technological advances and outsourcing eliminate an ever-increasing number of jobs.

In a market economy, people need jobs to earn sufficient income to meet their needs for food, shelter, clothing and other factors. We were reminded of technology’s advance when we witnessed cement being poured for a house foundation. Instead of several workers pulling the end of a chute to distribute the cement, one worker used electronic controls to move it to the desired locations.

Another example is the use of bar codes on items sold in stores that feed the information into a computer, which indicates which items need to be ordered. In a large box store, it is technically possible to use automated skids to move pallets of goods onto the shelves, eliminating jobs.

According to a recent posting in Robotic Nation, robots were used to eliminate labor unrest in a knitwear factory in Hong Kong. New machines were introduced that cut the labor force from 80 to six, while eliminating worker complaints about low wages.

Drones are being used for military purposes and in civilian applications. For surveillance purposes, they can be equipped with facial recognition cameras, infrared cameras or tasers. If so used, what protections exist for ordinary citizens?

Ford believes the rapid pace of technological advancement will dramatically reduce job opportunities for both laborers and professionals.

If technological advances occur at a rate that leaves a growing number of workers without jobs, an opportunity exists to reorganize the economy along more equitable and environmentally sustainable lines.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Aug. 29-Sept. 4, 2012, issue

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