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Green jobs sprout all over : The growth in eco-friendly products and services has spawned all kinds of careers. The trick is finding them.

November 15, 2009|Tiffany Hsu

Although the recession has emptied shopping malls and filled jobless centers, the call has only gotten louder for renewable energy, environmentally gentle products and eco-friendly practices -- and for people to make all of that happen.

President Obama has said that he hopes to create 5 million green jobs within a decade. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the "green economy" could account for as much as 10% of job growth over the next 30 years.

The job description casts a wide net. The green ranks can include autoworkers making hybrid cars, building consultants, home energy auditors, environmental studies professors, wind turbine engineers, lawyers for biofuel companies and many more.

Some will be new positions; others will involve workers from traditional industries tweaking their former skills.

So here's a look at where to find green jobs, how to prepare for them and how to land a spot.

The rundown

Even before the recession, the green-jobs market was growing at a faster pace than overall employment in most states, with California leading the trend, experts say. The growth rate of green jobs nationwide was 9.1% from 1998 to 2007, compared with a 3.7% increase for all jobs during the same period, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A UC Berkeley study concluded that "the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, per unit of energy produced and per dollar of investment, than the fossil fuel-based energy sector."

Even bastions of traditional industries, including the United Steelworkers union, support teaching green skills to preserve manufacturing and combat outsourcing.

Billions of dollars from clean-tech venture capitalists have poured into California -- $3.3 billion in 2008, more than double the amount in 2007, according to Palo Alto research group Next 10.

There's room for workers of all backgrounds and income brackets on that rising tide. In 2007, the nearly 125,500 clean-energy workers in California were pulling in $21,000 to $111,000, Pew found.

Daniel Morabito, 29, who was recently hired as a solar panel installer, said his salary at SolarCity is competitive with and far more stable than his paycheck from his previous commission-based job closing film deals. Now he has full benefits, stock options and more potential for long-term growth, he said.

After spending three years wearing a suit and tie in a downtown Los Angeles office, the Hermosa Beach resident recently toiled with two co-workers on top of a Westwood home.

Since June, the Foster City, Calif., company has hired 120 people, 41 of them in Southern California. An additional 180 hirings are expected in the next three months.

Morabito had no experience working with electrical wiring, but he researched the company and marched into the SolarCity warehouse with his resume, he said.

"Everyone's talking about solar these days," he said. "I missed being outside and really wanted to work with my hands. But I didn't know what to expect."

And now, a splash of cold water: Despite the potential of the green industry, the economic rough patch has saturated the job market with applicants. And some researchers caution that the green economy's potential has been exaggerated.

"Indeed, the green jobs literature claims resemble the promises of long-term financial prosperity offered by Ponzi schemes," concluded a study titled "Green Jobs Myths," released by the University of Illinois and Case Western Reserve University.

The range

Green positions run from the predictable, such as eco-activism work, to more unconventional careers.

"Nobody really knows what green jobs are anyway," said Tom Savage, a managing partner at Bright Green Talent, a job-search firm in San Francisco. "There's a whole gradient of color between the greenest jobs and the non-green. But it's more important to get excited that more jobs are greening in general."

Many of those positions involve skills that can be transferred from other lines of work.

Some companies are scooping up laid-off employees from other industries. Serious Materials in Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes energy-saving construction materials and has the ambitious goal of avoiding 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, bought a bankrupt window company in Pennsylvania in January and rehired some of the workers.

Green job seekers need to be imaginative. Potential employers can be found in unexpected areas, even the adult entertainment industry, said Alliyah Mirza, who launched her Earth Erotics website out of Portland, Ore., three years ago.

Demand for her wares -- natural lubricants, recycled-rubber whips and plastic-free sex toys, among them -- has grown at a rate that is "almost hard to keep up with," she said. Mirza's suppliers include massage oil manufacturers and glass makers that are exploring eco-friendly products.

"As the market grows, there will be a huge open field," she said.

Sometimes, switching into a green job can cause culture shock.

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