Point of View

Nurture green jobs and they'll sprout

February 2, 2011 

— President Barack Obama's State of the Union address rightly emphasized global competitiveness. More specifically, the president highlighted the need to invest in our nation's infrastructure, dominate in clean energy and ensure that our country creates the world's best innovators.

This vision is right on target, as anyone with a U.S. passport can attest, especially if you've recently glimpsed Japan's bullet trains, Denmark's wind farms or China's solar panel factories.

Still, it's likely that many State of the Union viewers were left with a burning question. Will this new vision get me a job?

The answer is not simple. Today's economy is so globally connected that the components for almost any product - from an airliner to a T-shirt - can come from any number of countries. To give a thoughtful answer about jobs, especially green jobs linked to clean energy and infrastructure, we need to take a close look at how products get manufactured.

In 2009, when the Obama administration first announced its $8-billion plan to develop high-speed rail, our research team at Duke University was asked to study the U.S. potential for manufacturing passenger railcars. We mapped out the supply chain and, to no one's surprise, found an industry dominated by European and Japanese firms. The reason this didn't surprise us is the U.S. essentially abandoned passenger rail 50 years ago in favor of roads.

But when we broke down the green job vision into concrete parts, it started to look much more doable.

For instance, when we took a much closer look at the component level of manufacturing passenger railcars, we found an unexpectedly high 249 U.S. locations in 35 states were already involved in this process. Because only a fraction of these firms appeared in publicly available data, we had to call around to find them.

Perhaps more important, our bottom-up framework of talking with each of these firms found gaps in workforce capabilities. This is central to U.S. competitiveness because if a major barrier to making high-speed railcars domestically is, for example, that workers don't have a specific welding expertise, then the obvious fix is to provide the training.

It also helps to look across industries. To date, we have analyzed 14 different clean-energy value chains (including solar, wind, electric vehicles and the smart grid), and this allows us to see important synergies.

Technology advances in power electronics, for instance, are crucial to hybrid vehicles, high-efficiency industrial motors, and the smart grid. Other components that tend to pop up in many clean-energy fields are advanced lightweight materials, nanotechnology and energy storage.

These connections can be surprising. Not many people would guess that electric vehicle batteries could help wind and solar power, but harnessing these energy sources at a grid scale requires adding back-up power precisely when the sun isn't shining or wind isn't blowing. A smarter grid would allow electricity to flow both ways, so that electric vehicle owners could store energy in their vehicle batteries, and later, sell it back to the grid when it's most needed.

With such powerful synergies, embracing clean energy is not a matter of gambling on "winners," as some critics have suggested. It's more about recognizing the recurring, inevitable bases we need to cover. And increasingly, it's about retraining our workforce - not just for clean energy, but throughout the industrial base - if our economy and workers are to compete.

The president called our need to make this kind of investment, especially in clean energy technology, our generation's Sputnik moment. This takes a commitment to reinforcing our strengths and making a fine-grained assessment of where we need to improve. The vision makes sense. Now let's do the strategizing, and the training, to get there.

Marcy Lowe is a senior research analyst at Duke University's Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness.

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