the (new) american worker

Fluff Alert! Labor Department Releases Green Jobs “Report” for Earth Day
April 22, 2010, 10:46 pm
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Fluff alert!! Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and another green jobs photo op.

Check out the Labor Department site and you will see that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was all over Earth Day today – naturally, the 40 year celebration of Mother Earth is an opportune occasion to highlight her agency’s efforts in green job building. But if you check out the Dept’s “full report”  on green jobs, (at 10 pages) you will see lots of cool pictures of Solis strolling confidently through solar plants but not a ton of data. It’s a little disappointing, but I guess the PR opportunity was there and the Labor Dept decided to just go with it. Of course, the report did acknowledge the $490 million that was awarded for green jobs training under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that’s nothing new at all. How about an update on that funding? What training programs have been successful? What are the conversion rates for older workers into new careers in green building or energy industries? What are the sign up rates for young people in vocational tech programs like solar installation? Are new degree programs being explored, to accommodate the need for intellectual investment in homegrown energy technology? These are the sorts of questions that should be answered in a “green jobs report,” not another picture of Hilda Solis looking good in industrial plant gear! C’mon guys.


No (Economic) Surprise: Green Manufacturing Jobs Flow Overseas
April 3, 2010, 2:52 pm
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One of the persistent concerns of President Obama’s massive $367 billion federal investment in new energy projects – from coal to renewables – is that the American labor force is too expensive, and/or lacks the proper training, for the needs of producers. A piece in Bloomberg BusinessWeek this week captured this idea quite simply:

No surprises: Arizona's First Solar will use federal incentives to hire 200 American workers - yet 71 percent of its manufacturing needs will still be met by foreign labor.

From BBW:

“Tempe, Arizona-based First Solar Inc. plans to do 71 percent of its manufacturing hiring in Malaysia after getting $16.3 million in federal funding to hire 200 people at an Ohio plant.”

Herein lies the ultimate problem – the economics of outsourcing the majority of manufacturing needs still makes sense to companies, incentives or not. Unfortunately, this simple reality doesn’t quiet any of the political outrage – especially as the Obama administration attempts to make good on its promise of 700,000 new jobs in stimulus renewables projects.

A green “industrial revolution” right here in America sounds great to some people – me included. This very blog was created to educate myself and others on the potentials for American labor in a new energy economy. Yet how the Obama administration is supposed to leapfrog over simple economics – foreign labor is, in my cases, simply cheaper – is still unclear to me. Perhaps it really is time that our nation’s expectations are shifted towards the potentials that lie in specialization and competitive advantage. CNBC recently ran a days-long debate on this topic, and the discussion turned often to where our best efforts should lie: in advanced education and innovation or in heavy industry and brawn. I believe Obama’s energy policies intended to do both – boosting Silicon Valley and Pittsburgh too. But is this really an economic reality? Perhaps not. “Green tech” manufacturing seems likelier to catch headwinds, i.e., manufacturing roles that place a heavy emphasis on innovation and other specialties, like low-carbon technology. But putting American steelworkers back to work building solar panels? Even with training and workforce investment, as U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis promised in this manufacturing summit on CNBC, this is a tall order. I’ll continue to entertain the idea (dream). But in the meantime, let’s not be surprised when we continue to lose certain types of jobs overseas – even better, let’s plan for it.

Gallup: Americans Want Diverse, Economy-Focused Energy Policies
March 21, 2010, 10:49 pm
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Gallup has run a number of polls this month that have really captured the current American sentiment on Obama’s ramped-up energy rhetoric and policy initiatives. The results demonstrate a rather conservative consciousness on energy, as in a March 13 poll where only 30% of respondents indicated support for reducing financial incentives for the oil and gas industries. In addition, 28% of respondents stated that current financial incentives for oil and gas should be maintained. Gallup condenses this information into a simple, powerful fact – 2 out of every 3 Americans believe the federal government should continue to support traditional energy sources like oil and gas. If anyone is wondering why Obama continues to pursue an “all colors of the rainbow” national energy policy – well, there you go.

A recent Gallup poll found that 53 percent of Americans favor economic growth over considerations for the environment.

The March 13 poll also showed an 11 percent tumble in the number of respondents who favor environmental protections over development of energy resources – from 58 percent in 2007 to 47 percent in 2010. Of course, the massive recession our country is still climbing out of likely influences these results. From nuclear to smart-grids, no energy proposal is complete nowadays without the requisite slogan of “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Compare this to the underemployment figure reported by Gallup this week – 20.1 percent – and it’s pretty easy to see why Americans are grasping at anything that resembles economic growth.

This realignment was also evident in another Gallup poll released last Thursday. When asked whether economic growth should be pursued, regardless of adverse environmental affects, 53 percent of respondents answered yes.

In my mind, this confirms what is often written nowadays about renewables like solar and wind – mainstream days are still a long way off. Sure, there may be huge economic potential in some of these projects – greater than the alternatives, in my opinion – but until renewable energy advocates can sell Americans on the idea that this potential exceeds the cost of reduced investment in say, natural gas or clean coal technology, then it looks like the American public will continue to support the old, the new and everything in between.

Obama Uses Energy Workers At Their Desks to Frame (Literally) Jobs Remarks
March 6, 2010, 1:39 am
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As a former student of electoral politics – and current student of energy economy – President Obama’s press conference at OPower, an Arlington, VA-based energy efficiency consultancy, last Friday caught my eye for two reasons.

President Obama pitched pieces of his jobs bill Friday standing in the office of OPower, a VA-based energy efficiency consultancy.

First, Obama delivered his remarks right in the middle of the OPower office, with OPower workers literally just standing at their desks to hear the President speak. Stepping up to a simple podium set in the middle of the room, Obama launched into his brief speech with a casual aside:

“Just looking around the room, this looks like a fun place to work,” he said, naturally drawing polite laughter. (When the POTUS gives a speech 10 feet from your desk, you laugh at his jokes.)

Visually, it was highly evocative of Obama’s message to put Americans to work at innovative companies like OPower. I liked it. No doubt, some politcal hand got a nice pat on the back for setting up that shot.

Second, the President delivered this speech on the heels of a weekly data report that found the economy lost 36,000 jobs for the final week of February – less than anticipated, but still bleak. Sticking to his message of the past couple months, the President eagerly emphasized the growth potential of companies like OPower. He claimed that the consultancy “doubled its workforce last year,” and “hopes to add another 100 workers this year.” He then touted his plan to offer a $5,000 tax credit for each additional hire companies make – a point he emphasized by bidding up, auctioneer style, OPower’s planned number of new hires, from “110…115…we’ll see,” to OPower CEO Daniel Yates standing off camera.

100 new workers at one firm in Virginia in one year – if OPower’s claims are valid, that would be a pretty rapid infusion to the workforce. I think this makes an important point. While large-scale projects like nuclear can provide good, high-paying jobs, the numbers I have seen for these massive projects cap at about a few thousand new workers. Energy beliefs aside, I think the combination of start-up psychology, (hopefully) significant growth potential and overall agility makes companies like OPower all the more powerful for development of the American workforce and human capital.

–Mia Lamar

Good Jobs First: Total “Supply Chain” Still Needed
March 4, 2010, 4:22 pm
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A candid report on the total energy “supply chain” was released by labor group Good Jobs First today. For all the discussion of the need for jobs in building new energy infrastructure, this report notes – as we’ve seen in the depressed demand for wind turbines, etc – that theses jobs won’t be able to reach their full potential until demand is elevated. How do we do that? First, pass climate legislation, indicating and assuring consumers of the long-term U.S. benefits of renewable energy sources.

From the report: “The U.S. needs a comprehensive strategy, including safeguards to ensure that increased demand for renewable energy systems doesn’t simply create manufacturing jobs in low-wage havens,” says Good Jobs First Executive Director Greg LeRoy.

Check out the full report here.