What Counts as Green Collar?

At the heart of President Obama's economic recovery plan is the promise of new green collar jobs. Workers concerned about being laid off from their blue collar jobs are starting to wonder what those new jobs will look like. Julie Grant reports.

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OPEN: At the heart of President Obama's economic recovery plan is the promise of new green collar jobs. Workers concerned about being laid off from their blue collar jobs are starting to wonder what those new jobs will look like. Julie Grant reports.

Michelle Forte has been a dye maker at the General Motors plant in Parma, Ohio for 15 years. She says everyone at work is worried about the future of the plant, and the prospects of the whole company.

"It's a scary industry to be in right now. They keep on sending our work to China. And my job could be next, you just don't know. It's scary to live in that environment every day. You go into work and it's negative all the time."

Forte hasn't gotten a raise in 6 years. And in the future, if she stays as autoworker, she's going to be making a lot less.

"I will tell you what I made last year, and that was $80,000. And this year, with the concessions that we've took and the overtime that we've lost, I will be lucky to make $60,000. So, yeah, it's a drastic cut."

Forte decided to take advantage of job training money available at GM. She gets up a five in the morning to start work, then after her shift she heads to school.

She and two co-workers have started taking courses at the new Green Academy at Cuyahoga Community College. They're learning what it takes to install solar panels, wind turbines, and to make buildings energy efficient. It's tough getting home after 10 at night. But Forte says learning to work in the clean energy field is a positive step for their future.

"Because we wanted to get in on the ground floor. If it breaks open like we think it is, we want to have the education under our belt already."

But most autoworkers aren't betting on an explosion of green jobs. At least, they aren't spending their time in training classes - even if they've already been laid off.

Joe Rugola is president of the AFL-CIO of Ohio. The union represents everyone from musicians to office workers to electricians.

Rugola says people who've been laid off have to make impossible choices if they decide to start training in a new industry - do they continue looking for jobs to keep the unemployment check coming in - or do they go to school for retraining?

"Am I going to go for training, if I'm already laid off, am I going to risk my unemployment benefits, and go for training in an industry that may or may not produce real work down the road? A person in that situation should not have to make that choice."

And that's the big gamble. Do they invest time and effort to retrain for jobs that might never materialize?

President Obama has said that a move toward clean energy production has enormous job creation potential. But some researchers say that's overblown.

Andrew Dorchak is a researcher with the Case Western Reserve University law library. He coauthored a study titled Green Job Myths.

The first myth: that there is a common understanding of what makes something a green job.

"We've figured out that there wasn't a really good definition of green jobs. Especially if there are political subsidies involved that might be problematic."

Problematic because many of the jobs classified as green today aren't making wind turbines and solar panels in the Midwest. They're lobbyists, administrative assistants, and janitors working for environmental organizations in New York and Washington.

And he's concerned the definition of green jobs will get even wider as government pockets get deeper.

"It's subject to maneuvering. To people fighting to classify their jobs as green."

Dorchak says companies will chase the subsidies. That could take away from government money to create productive jobs.

Jobs that could help people like Michelle Forte find work - and improve the environment at the same time.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.