The turbulent job market during the past two years has sent many displaced workers in search of not only new jobs but also new careers entirely. People who felt secure working in long-established industries -- such as banking, real estate and journalism -- found themselves out of work with little chance of finding similar jobs. Many people have had no choice but to look for new lines of work, regardless of how much time they spent in their old ones.
Tired of working for aging industries that are shedding jobs, many job seekers are looking for emerging fields that have their best days ahead of them. Perhaps no other sector of the job market qualifies like green jobs, which by their very nature look forward into the future.
What defines a green job is hard to pin down. The White House's unofficial definition of a green job is one that is good for the environment, but there is hardly a consensus as to what exactly makes a job green.
"In my opinion, people see green jobs from the lens that reflects their own experience or what they're most familiar with," says Jim Cassio, co-author of "Green Careers: Choosing Work for a Sustainable Future." "Some feel that green jobs are professional jobs, such as engineers and scientists and others who protect the environment. Some others feel that green jobs are not professional jobs, that they are blue-collar jobs that are also good for the environment. Some see green jobs as clean-energy jobs. Some others see green jobs as well-paying, get-out-of-poverty jobs. And because we don't yet have an official definition of green jobs, everyone can claim to be right."
With environmental issues on the front burner of American politics, it is tempting to dismiss a company striving to improve its green credentials as pulling a public relations stunt. But it is not just good PR to reduce waste, draw less power and use less water; any company that does those things will also see its operating costs go down. Large corporations with extensive computer networks have asked their IT departments to find ways to run their data centers more efficiently and use less energy. Keeping all of those servers from overheating can run up massive electric bills.
New companies that are emerging in the green economy start off hiring highly specialized tech-type workers, but as time goes by, they will need to fill positions that can be found in any company.
"With the startup companies gaining traction, they will continue to grow and develop," says Carol McClelland, author of "Green Careers for Dummies." "As they do, they will need to hire more than just the science and technology people they've been hiring."
The list of occupations that can be considered green, or at least contain a slight shade of green, is always expanding. The green economy and the current economy continue to merge.
"At the top of that list is renewable energy; energy efficiency, including green building; alternative fuel vehicles, including alternative fuels; energy storage; air and environment; recycling and waste; water and wastewater; sustainable and organic agriculture; manufacturing and industrial activities that support clean-tech objectives, including advanced materials; energy infrastructure, including the new smart grid electrical distribution system; and various green business, research and financial services," Cassio says.
"But there are many other green-job sectors outside the green economy, too," Cassio adds. "For example, public transportation, ecotourism, government agencies and the nonprofit sector all have their share of green jobs."
With the extensive media attention on environmental issues, particularly global warming, skeptics have dismissed the emerging green economy as an unnecessary burden on business. The politics have created divisions in public opinion, but the fact that we all live on the same planet -- and it's the only one we have -- means that what's good for the environment is good for us all.
"I think politics give us a false impression that Americans are divided on whether it's good to be green. But I don't think that's true in reality," Cassio says. "I do think we're divided in terms of whether we believe that climate change is human-caused, but I think that a vast majority of Americans have connected the dots and have come to realize that our well-being and the well-being of our environment are interconnected. We have evolved to a point -- finally -- where we see the environment as fragile, something that we have the ability to ruin. And that would be the ruin of us."