Oregon spent hundreds of millions to create “green” jobs, but it can’t say how many it got.
It was supposed to be the New Deal of our time: billions in federal spending to create “green jobs” that would save the environment while ending the recession.
That’s what President Obama promised in his 2009 Earth Day speech, delivered just two months after Congress passed the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Obama pledged stimulus spending would “focus on unleashing a new, clean-energy economy that will begin to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, will cut our carbon pollution by about 80 percent by 2050, and create millions of new jobs.”
Govs. Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber have both hyped the green economy, overseeing the spending of millions to create new jobs based on sustainability, conservation and renewable energy.
But this New Deal for our times has turned out to be the same old deal.
WW has examined reports on thousands of projects funded by federal stimulus money, analyses by state agencies responsible for tracking jobs, and independent studies that tried to figure out how many green jobs exist in the state.
The result? With tens of millions spent, Oregon can account for only a relative handful of “green” jobs created or saved. Training opportunities for these jobs are scarce. Agencies and companies that were supposed to report back on how many jobs they created haven’t done so, making reliable counts impossible.
When they talk about green jobs, Obama and Kitzhaber speak of careers in such cutting-edge fields as solar and wind energy, advanced fuel cells, and “green” chemistry.
But records show that the state has stretched its “green job” definition so broadly it includes such low-tech occupations as mowing lawns and shoveling manure. According to the Oregon Employment Department, the No. 1 “green job” in Oregon is “carpenter.” No. 2? Truck driver.
The state says a green job is any that works to “increase energy efficiency; produce renewable energy; prevent, reduce, or mitigate environmental degradation; clean up and restore the natural environment; [or] educate, consult, and provide other services that support the above.”
“The vast majority of green jobs are in existing occupations—they’re in jobs that have been around for decades,” says Gail Kiles Krumenauer, green jobs economist for the department.
Using this very broad definition, officials claim Oregon has more than 50,000 green jobs, composing some 4 percent of the state’s workforce.
A more realistic number comes from a recent Brookings Institution study of “clean economy” jobs around the country. The study says Oregon has 845 jobs in solar, wind and geothermal energy. (Oregon Employment Department figures show the state has lost 133,000 jobs since 2008.) The Brookings study, using a more restrictive definition than the state’s, placed the Portland metro area 15th in the nation, behind Denver and Albany, N.Y., for green jobs as a share of the local workforce.
The state claims that overall, more than 4,700 jobs have been created or saved thanks to $727 million spent on Oregon’s stimulus-funded projects—whether or not the money was supposed to create “green” jobs.
But that’s just an estimate. The companies and agencies who spent the money are supposed to be reporting how many jobs they’ve created or saved, but they aren’t doing that. As a result, records show, they have only officially claimed 911 jobs.
The number of jobs reported that directly relate to energy efficiency, renewables or sustainability is much smaller—about 400, based on WW’s analysis.
State experts can’t say how many green jobs have been produced as a result of the stimulus money. “The data you’re looking for might not exist yet,” says Cylvia Hayes, whose company, 3E Strategies, got a state contract paid for with stimulus money to come up with a green jobs plan for Oregon.
Using part of a $1.25 million stimulus grant, the Oregon Employment Department developed an “automated tool” that scours help-wanted ads for any openings that might be “green jobs.” The idea was to create a constantly updated online green jobs board.
The results are likely to disappoint anyone looking for work on wind turbines. One of the latest openings flagged by the online tool was “hog farm laborer” in Wheatland, Wyo., a seasonal job that pays $9.90 an hour. Duties include raising piglets, castrating animals, mixing feed and “flush[ing] hog wastes into holding pits.”
The more expansive the definition of green jobs, the more success officials can claim in meeting their goals. For example, a state-produced green jobs brochure—also paid for by stimulus money—promotes growing opportunities for landscapers and groundskeepers, whose responsibilities include “dig[ging] trenches, ditches, or holes with hand tools.” It’s hard to imagine that these are the “shovel-ready” projects Congress had in mind.
“Everybody who is working in this field…has really struggled with (the definitions). Oregon is no exception,” Hayes says. “We were really one of the first to come up with a working definition. It still is to some a little squishy.”
Squishiness hasn’t stopped subsidies for green companies.
Last week, corporate executives and local officials, including Mayor Sam Adams, cut a big green ribbon with a comically oversized pair of scissors at the opening of the U.S. headquarters of ReVolt Technologies, a Swiss company working on an experimental rechargeable battery design.
ReVolt is a flagship green jobs project, and Oregon taxpayers have a lot riding on its success. Last year, the company received a $5 million stimulus grant to subsidize research and development. On top of that, ReVolt has received a $1.2 million loan from the Portland Development Commission, $3.3 million from an Oregon Department of Energy loan program, and a $500,000 forgivable loan from Kitzhaber’s “strategic reserve fund.” ReVolt has also been certified for business energy tax credits from the state Energy Department.
In exchange for the subsidies, ReVolt officials in 2009 said they would create 75 jobs in the first phase of operations, and eventually hire 250 workers in Portland.
ReVolt officials didn’t respond to WW’s calls. But in the most recent federal stimulus report, dated June 30, ReVolt reported 8.2 full-time employees.
PDC officials tell WW the actual number is 18. Last week, its website advertised only four open positions: two technicians, a machinist and an accountant. City officials say they aren’t worried that ReVolt’s jobs haven’t appeared yet. “It’ll be a phased approach,” says PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman. “They’ll add [jobs] as needed.”
As with many advanced tech jobs, ReVolt’s openings require skills that are hard to come by. Which points to another area in which the national green jobs push has fallen short: education and training.
Hayes, the energy consultant, who is Kitzhaber’s live-in companion, addressed this issue in a report that her company wrote under a $162,000 contract from the state Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development.
The October 2010 report calls for increasing by 30 percent jobs in energy efficiency, renewable energy production and generation, green manufacturing, and energy transmission and storage. The report says that means training workers—such as at the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and other state schools that grant degrees in environmental sciences, ecological engineering and environmental economics, policy and management.
State officials boast Oregon has prepared workers for green jobs faster than most other states. But a Community Colleges and Workforce Development report shows that—despite all the buzz—only 6 percent of the state’s community college students have received “green” training—a number that’s unchanged since 2008.
A $5 million federal stimulus grant to train Oregonians for “green” careers has so far enrolled 731 students at community colleges statewide. Locally, state numbers show, 72 students have begun or completed stimulus-funded courses at Mount Hood Community College, Portland Community College and the Oregon Institute of Technology’s Portland campus—roughly 1.3 percent of the enrollment at those schools.
And what, exactly, are these “green job” training programs?
Of the 27 trainees enrolled at PCC, it’s unclear how many are actually moving toward work in the renewable energy or sustainable building fields. The school’s “green” courses include associate’s degree programs in “automotive technology” and “facilities maintenance.” Five trainees have been placed in internships.
Recruitment at PCC has proven difficult, an Aug. 12 state progress report notes, because “eligible candidates often find academic standards difficult to achieve.”
Whether or not graduates end up working on electric vehicles, or gasoline-burning internal combustion engines, their enrollment counts as a successful “green” training opportunity. In reality, they’ll be lucky to find a job at all.
“Our looming challenge,” says Oregon Workforce Investment Board executive staffer Greg White, “is that even though we’re training these folks for opportunities that most experts say are going to be there, right now, with the economy the way it is, there just aren’t that many jobs out there.”
A state community colleges report in September tracked 5,198 students who received at least 30 hours of “green” training in 2008 and 2009.
The result: “Green-trained students” went to work in administrative services, nursing, health care and “repair and maintenance.” Others got jobs at restaurants and bars, clothing stores and in “amusement, gambling and recreation industries.”
“People don’t go necessarily where you’d like them to go,” White says. “Maybe they’d rather go off and be a barista or whatever. More likely, they can’t get a job in their field.”
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