Why green jobs have been slow to grow

A green "find jobs" key on a keyboard represents green jobs and work in the clean-tech economy.

KAI RYSSDAL: There are now four investigations into the failed solar company Solyndra. The Treasury Department opened its probe today. It joins the Department of Energy, the FBI and the House of Representatives in trying to figure out how $528 million worth of government-guaranteed loans went bad.

Once upon a time, Solyndra was a key part of President Obama's push into green tech and green jobs.

Remember green jobs? They were supposed to lead the recovery, if memory serves. Marketplace's Adriene Hill explains why that didn't work out so well.


ADRIENE HILL: The story of green jobs in this country is like a reverse "ugly duckling" fable. Once, a long, long time ago -- actually about three years -- green jobs were the belle of the ball. The darling of both political parties. During the presidential campaign, then candidate Obama pledged $150 billion to the green economy.

BARACK OBAMA: An investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't be outsourced.

John McCain swooned.

JOHN MCCAIN: We can clean up our environment and at the same time get our economy going by creating millions of jobs. We can do that.

But now, meh. Politicians are staying away from green jobs -- at least staying away from calling them by their name. The political darling has turned into a political dog. Very public failures, like Solyndra, have blemished the reputation of the green economy -- even though a new study from Brookings shows clean-tech jobs grew faster than the economy as a whole between 2003 and 2010. But...

MARK MURO: Other sectors that were also viewed as very much part of this green economy activity absorbed blows.

Mark Muro is a senior fellow at Brookings. He wrote the green jobs report. He says among the disappointments: jobs related to home and building efficiency. For example, in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer reports that a $20 million federal weatherization program has only created 14 jobs.

MURO: See, these things were tied up in the whole real estate, construction sector and therefore lost their markets through the middle of this decade.

The housing market and recession killed a whole lot of green jobs potential in the short term. There are other reasons the green-jobs revolution hasn't been quite revolutionary.

Harvard Business School professor Josh Lerner wrote the book, literally, on when government investments in entrepreneurial ventures work and when they don't. He says, when it comes to the way green-jobs investment has been handled...

JOSH LERNER: It's hard not to feel that they indeed ticked a lot of boxes on the what not to do list.

Among the donts, Lerner says, the clean-tech funding process wasn't transparent enough. It happened fast. And those very public political crushes didn't help.

LERNER: One of the most crucial things is sort of realizing that this is not just a multi-year, but probably a multi-decade process. It's unlikely to be something that's going to have quick, quick, quick returns from it.

He says all those initial, down-on-one-knee, pin-in-the-sky political declarations, could leave people feeling pretty darn disillusioned about an economy that has the potential to be very significant in the future.

Kate Gordon, from the progressive think-tank Center for American Progress, says there's been another set of roadblocks for green jobs. Simply: demand.

KATE GORDON: We have not put into place any of the national policies that other countries that other countries that are beating the tails off of us in this area have put into place.

We don't have any national guidelines about how much of our electricity should come from renewable sources. We don't have any sort of carbon tax to encourage greener choices.

GORDON: My concern is that we're getting as far as we can right now, but we're not going to be able to really ramp this up until we make some of those commitments.

The likelihood that Washington will come up with any of those commitments any time soon is unlikely. Leaving the green-jobs economy -- like the rest of the economy -- waiting for a reversal in fortune.

I'm Adriene Hill for Marketplace.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

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