Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/27/2008 9:41:44 PM ET 2008-05-28T01:41:44

When a Republican candidate for president starts talking about limiting greenhouse gases during a speech at a wind turbine plant you know there’s an environmental wave going on.

All the presidential candidates, including John McCain who spoke about climate change at a  wind energy facility in Oregon this month, have green initiatives on their agendas, and states across the country are embarking on initiatives to cut pollution and a reliance on fossil fuels. Not to mention homeowners who don’t want to be at the mercy of electric and oil companies.

Solar, wind and biofuels are all growing alternatives, and these fairly young industries will need people — people to produce, install and sell their products.

That means a wave of employment opportunities — so-called green-collar jobs — could sweep the nation.

Samuel Pagan is already a beneficiary. This former steelworker now works at a wind turbine plant owned by Gamesa Wind USA in Fairless Hills, Pa.

Pagan was sick of the ups and downs of old-line manufacturing and saw wind as a growth industry. “I was looking for more stability,” he explains. He needed little training because he had assembly experience and was able to quickly step into his new career, doing mechanical assembly of mainframes for wind turbines.

“It’s a new industry and a new company and there’s opportunity here,” says Pagan, who admits he’s not really a tree hugger but just wanted a stable job.

Brian von Moos, business development manager for Borrego Solar Systems in Berkeley, Calif., has always been environmentally conscious and got into the solar industry for that reason.

Right after college, von Moos worked for a law firm and considered going to law school, but after traveling for a year he decided to go into renewable energy instead. He saw it “as a way to make a difference in the world. I’m passionate about the technology as a solution to pollution and global warming. I wanted to be a part of it.”

Pagan and von Moos represent the two types of employees that will become the backbone of the green labor force — former blue-collar and white-collar workers looking for new opportunities.

Some experts project an explosion of such jobs, but no one really knows how many green-collar jobs there are today because the government doesn’t even have such a category.

Even the meaning of the word “green collar” is up for debate. Many experts lump together green industry manufacturing positions and office jobs under the same green-collar umbrella, although Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor at San Francisco State University who says she coined the term “green collar,” says it originally referred to only blue-collar type positions.

For the purposes of my column, I will be using green-collar to describe jobs from the office to the factory floor.

Estimates vary widely on the size of the opportunity.

One environmental coalition, the Apollo Alliance, projects 3 million green-collar jobs will be created in the next decade, based on planned public and private investment of some $300 billion.

Richard Kearney, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University, puts the figure closer to 100,000 new jobs in the next few years.

In any case, green industries are growing at a time when many others are shrinking and layinf off workers, offering at least a glimmer of hope.

“If you’re looking for lifetime employment this is the opportunity for you,” says Bronwyn Llewellyn, co author of “Green Jobs: A Guide to Eco-Friendly Employment.”

The key is to separate the real green-collar jobs from pseudo green-collar jobs, she says.

While some traditional firms have added environmentally safe products or tout green initiatives, a truly green company is dedicated to producing renewable energy or products and environmentally sound services.

Workers need to keep their eyes peeled for these green-collar job ads because they will be delivered through “discrete sectors of the economy” — everything from bicycle repair to organic food production, says Pinderhughes.

The fastest-growing sectors, she adds, will be recycling, energy efficiency, solar, wind and water conservation.

Borrego, the solar company where von Moos works, already has increased its work force this year by more than 10 percent to 144 employees. “Right now we have an open requisition for field people, sales people, middle managers and a CFO,” he adds.

Workers are increasingly looking to see what green-collar jobs are out there.

Monster.com, the job board giant, has seen a jump in the last 12 months of people searching for environmental service jobs, up to 1.37 million job searches in April from about half that a year earlier, says a spokesperson for the company.

The process for finding a green-collar job is similar that of any other job, but be prepared to explain why you want to work in a green industry, and you might need to be flexible about relocating, says Llewellyn.

In the “Green Jobs” book, she and her co-authors stress thinking outside the corporate box: “There’s a chance that the dream green job you desire just isn’t out there or available in the place you want to live or the industry you want to work for. The new green economy is going to have plenty of room for innovative thinkers and entrepreneurial types who have what it takes to strike out on their own.”

Don’t expect a financial windfall in the green-collar sector, at least not right away. Wages are typically on par with or a bit less than traditional employment, especially among manufacturing jobs. Some workers are covered by unions.

Gamesa has created 1,160 jobs in Pennsylvania, including 955 manufacturing positions.

“These are good-paying jobs, with workers earning $12 to $18 an hour on average,” says Kurt Knaus, a spokesman for the company, adding that the workers are represented by the United Steelworkers.

Some believe there are more opportunities to advance in green jobs because the industry is still in its infancy and someone who works hard can easily make a mark.

Pagan started full time with Gamesa in early 2007 and is now team leader in the quality control area.

“Today, I make 20 to 25 percent more than when I started,” he says. “I’ve worked for other places, shown myself, tried to improve, but I was not given the opportunities that I got here.”

Brad Mohring, a former designer for an automotive supplier outside of Toledo, was laid off in early 2007 and applied to a host of traditional firms in auto, defense, etc.

He decided to take a job as senior designer for Xunlight, a solar energy company, even though other companies offered more money.

“Every day I’m learning something and it was a chance to get in on the ground floor of a company. I was the 20th person hired here,” he explains.

“And,” he adds, “I know it sounds cheesy, but I’ve got a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old. I want to leave a better place for them to grow up in.”

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