Arkansas' Green-Collar Potential (Commentary by Mark Robertson)

Economists, business owners, environmentalists and labor activists all see a silver lining in our economic crisis. It's the chance to create new opportunities for industry while building a better, cleaner environment. It's the "green economy," and it's on the minds of many.

Installing solar panels, weatherizing homes, assisting with energy audits, brewing biofuels, erecting wind turbines and building hybrid cars are just some of the jobs that will make up this new green economy. Labor advocates view these new jobs as replacements for positions lost to overseas outsourcing. Urban groups view green-collar job training as a route out of poverty, and environmentalists think these jobs are crucial in fighting climate change.

Some believe "green jobs" are just politically trendy talk, but across the nation – and here in Arkansas – we're seeing that this new green economy is a reality. Green jobs are the old blue-collar jobs, and moving up the career ladder with a green job can often be much easier. Workers might start out making $10 an hour inspecting homes for energy efficiency. Then they might become $18-an-hour workers installing solar panels, a $25-an-hour solar-team manager and, eventually, an electrician or carpenter making $40 an hour for energy renovations.

Arkansas is ready to be at the forefront of this green economy. The Arkansas Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council is working on a low-income homeowner energy audit and assistance pilot project that, if adopted statewide, could create hundreds of green-collar jobs. Recently, the William J. Clinton Foundation announced a new partnership between the Clinton Climate Initiative and the state of Arkansas to explore energy-reduction programs in the state.

Additionally, because of our success as a manufacturing state and our central location, Arkansas could easily become a major supplier of "green goods" and services to major cities in the Southeast. Goods produced within a 500-mile radius are considered local and are preferred in the green-building industry. This means rethinking what we produce while capitalizing on our experience as a producer.

Arkansas will be part of President Barack Obama's nationwide goal of creating 5 million new green-collar jobs over the next 10 years. Reaching this number is feasible, studies show. One report by the Rand Corp. and the University of Tennessee found that if 25 percent of all American energy were produced from renewable sources by 2025, we would generate at least 5 million new green jobs. By 2030, when 75 percent of the buildings in the country are expected to be green, we'll need a new work force of qualified green builders, facility managers and more.

The USGBC-AR's Energy Audit & Assistance Program would create green jobs in which energy auditors work with homeowners to reduce their energy costs. Recent studies show a disproportionate amount of energy is consumed by poorly constructed low-income homes. As a result, low-income families spend up to 50 percent of their income on utilities. Even more alarming are those who do without adequate heating or air conditioning because of economic circumstances. The energy audit program would help improve these situations.

Hundreds of options exist when it comes to carving out green-collar jobs. Just look at the definition Van Jones, author of the book "The Green Collar Economy," gives for a green-collar job: "family-supporting, career-track, vocational, or trade-level employment in environmentally-friendly fields."

This means the small-business cleaning service that decides to use all organic cleaning products is now considered a green-collar job. Or the farmer who engages in organic agriculture and some biofuels production is now part of this new green economy.

Arkansas' green economy will be a mix of current jobs retrofitted as green jobs and new jobs created because of efforts to reduce energy consumption and help our environment.

Our nation is on the cusp of a new economy, and Arkansas is poised to take advantage of this exciting growth. We just have to move the conversation from the table of a few politicians, business people, activists and environmentalists to the family dinner table. Every Arkansan must understand the benefits and embrace the idea of this potentially multibillion-dollar green industry.                                        

(Mark A. Robertson is a principal with Mesa Landscape Architects Inc. of Little Rock.)