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Doing the Recovery Right | The Nation

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Doing the Recovery Right

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Devil in the Details

About the Author

Robert Pollin
Robert Pollin, professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), is the author...

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The underdogs may have enough in the tank to surprise us again next year.

Spending the same money on education, or clean energy, would bring many more jobs—among other benefits.

Of course, there will be excellent, good, bad and disastrous ways to execute the particulars of advancing a unified program for green investments and full employment. Among the most important considerations are regional fairness, cushioning the negative impact on workers and communities tied to the fossil fuel industries, and making the best of the opportunities and challenges posed by the construction industry.

Regional equity. Although all regions can gain significantly from this green recovery program, their ability to capture the benefits of specific technologies like solar or wind power varies according to their climate and geography. But all regions are equally capable of making investments to improve energy efficiency dramatically through retrofitting buildings, expanding public transportation systems and increasing the efficiency and stability of the electric grid. Similarly, all areas of the country have renewable energy resources (for example, underground heat for geothermal energy or nonfood agricultural products to generate biomass fuels) and the ability to produce goods and services (research on biofuel refining or even accounting support) that will be demanded during the clean energy transition. Government support for green investment should therefore be allocated on an equitable basis by region; for example, based on a combination of population levels and proportion of GDP.

Fossil fuel jobs and communities. About 3.5 million Americans are either employed in producing oil, natural gas and coal, or their jobs are linked to the traditional energy suppliers. These jobs will obviously dry up as we reduce fossil fuel dependence. Communities tied to these industries--coal-mining towns throughout much of Appalachia and the oil-rich areas of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Alaska--will obviously be hurt. But it is important to remember that the green investment agenda will create far more jobs overall, including for people now employed in the traditional fossil fuel sectors. Some of these jobs will be in specialized areas, such as installing solar panels and researching new building material technologies. But the vast majority of jobs will be in the same employment areas in which people already work, in every region and state.

Constructing wind farms, for example, creates jobs for sheet metal workers, machinists and truck drivers, among many others. Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings through retrofitting requires roofers, insulators and building inspectors. Expanding mass-transit systems employs civil engineers, electricians and dispatchers. In addition, all these green energy investment strategies engage a normal range of service and support activities--including accountants, lawyers, office clerks, human resources managers, cashiers and retail salespeople. That said, some significant part of the spending on the clean energy transformation will have to be directed to assist the communities that will be most negatively affected by the contraction of the fossil fuel industries.

Construction jobs. Roughly 30 percent of the job creation generated by the green investment agenda will be in the construction industry, although construction accounts for only about 6 percent of US employment. In the short term, construction has been hit severely by the housing bubble collapse, with nearly 900,000 jobs lost since September 2006. The Obama green recovery agenda can bring back most of these jobs.

Construction jobs cannot be outsourced. Retrofitting a home in Maryland can be done only in Maryland. The public transportation in Los Angeles can be upgraded only in Los Angeles. On average, construction jobs pay decently, because unions still have a strong presence in the industry. Construction unions have also frequently created job ladders for those in low-paying entry-level positions. These opportunities for low-level workers in construction are far more favorable than, for example, those facing workers in the restaurant, hotel or nursing fields.

On the other hand, employment in construction has long been dominated by white males. The industry has a history of hiring discrimination against women and racial minorities, and even now, nearly 60 percent of construction jobs are held by white non-Hispanic males. Women who try to enter construction trades also face sexual harassment and work schedules that are not family-friendly. It is essential that the green investment agenda include strong measures to break down the employment barriers in these trades. It would be an important first step for Hilda Solis, Obama's pick for labor secretary, a Hispanic with a strong record of supporting the rights of all working people, to revive the Labor Department's long dormant Federal Contract Compliance programs. If enforced, these measures would go far toward providing women and minorities a fair share of the construction jobs generated by the green investment agenda.

Beyond this, the green investment program cannot be seen as sole driver of a social justice agenda, either as a short-term stimulus or a long-run program for equitable and sustainable economic growth. Two other obvious investment targets are healthcare and educational services (i.e., spending on teachers, administrators, scholarships, hot lunch programs and bus drivers, as opposed to constructing new school buildings). In terms of promoting productivity and public well-being, investments in health and education are at least as important as public transportation and the energy grid. In addition, the employment impact of investing in healthcare is roughly equal to the average for green investments, while educational services investments generate about 40 percent more jobs. Jobs in education and healthcare are also divided much more evenly by gender and race than those in construction (white non-Hispanic males make up only 15 percent of the overall workforce in healthcare and 22 percent in education).

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