Green Occupations: A Bit Like Loch Ness Monsters

by Jim Cassio

People looking for green jobs or careers often expect to find occupations that are considered to be — well, green occupations. However, green occupations are a bit like Loch Ness Monsters: Everybody has heard of them, but how many people have actually seen one?

Individual jobs, on the other hand, can be green, or not green, or somewhere in between.

But occupations are not jobs, and it’s important to understand the difference. Occupations are categories of jobs with similar characteristics. As such they are not usually defined on the basis of how green their jobs are. (Ed. note: The Department of Labor has their own occupational classification system that is in the process of being revamped to incorporate green jobs.)

Because occupations represent the capability to perform numerous jobs with similar characteristics, virtually all occupations include both green jobs and non-green jobs.

The real difference is in the number and ratio of green jobs to non-green jobs within each occupation. In other words, some occupations provide a much greater chance of a green career than others.

Let’s consider a handful of examples to illustrate this point:

Environmental Scientist
This is an occupation that’s focused on protecting the environment; therefore its jobs are almost always going to be — green jobs.

This is an occupation that has some green jobs in the green building sector. However, most jobs for carpenters are traditional, non-green jobs. But take note that there isn’t a separate occupation for green building carpenters — because their job and work characteristics, including skill sets, are pretty much the same as for the non-green carpenter jobs. The difference between them is largely a matter of their knowledge of green building practices and sustainable building materials.

Registered Nurse
This is an occupation that is all about providing health care services and not about environmental services. Consequently, most jobs for RNs are non-green jobs. At least until more health care employers commit to being environmentally responsible.

Energy Auditor
This is an example of a new and emerging occupation that has only recently been defined by the U.S. Department of Labor. Jobs for energy auditors involve conducting energy audits of buildings, building systems, and process systems — for the purposes of improving energy efficiency. Basically, all jobs involved in energy efficiency related work are — green jobs.

Mechanical Engineer
This occupation involves planning and designing tools, engines, machines, and other mechanically functioning equipment. It’s an occupation that includes a mix of green jobs and non-green jobs. A mechanical engineer could design a solar power plant or a heavily polluting industrial facility. As with other occupations, jobs for mechanical engineers would be green jobs when they are good for the environment, or when their employer is committed to being environmentally responsible.

So are there green occupations? Yes, and they most likely exceed the number of Loch Ness Monsters lurking in the Scottish Highlands! But the point is, most of the green jobs in today’s workplace are part of occupations that are some combination of green jobs and non-green jobs. This is part of the reason why estimating the number of green jobs is such a difficult  job.

Jim Cassio is the founder of and the co-author of Green Careers: Choosing Work for a Sustainable Future (New Society Publishers)

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