If you’ve been reading NewTerrain for a while, you know green infrastructure has gained traction. When politicians and policy makers pitch green approaches, job creation is always a part of the narrative. Does green infrastructure deliver? How is it doing in terms of creating jobs?
The picture painted in “Exploring the Green Infrastructure Workforce, A NatureWORKS Issue Brief” is complex. The truth is, green infrastructure hasn’t been the big driver of jobs that its proponents had hoped for. It is, however, creating demand for workers with skills and knowledge.
The Jobs for the Future paper takes a look at green infrastructure employment for installation, maintenance and inspection of green infrastructure and first-line supervisors of that work. NatureWORKS’ Kevin Doyle shares, “By design, it does not include an examination of ‘GI’ design and planning jobs for architects, planners, landscape architects, wetland ecologists, hydrologists and related professionals.”
Their definition of green infrastructure: “A collection of natural lands, working landscapes and appropriate constructed interventions that conserves ecosystem functions and provides benefits to human populations.”
The picture is emergent: Green infrastructure is new
The report acknowledges up front that advocates hoped the push for green infrastructure would have already resulted in more jobs in areas like green roofs or green stormwater infrastructure. One of the issues confronting researchers is that there are no specific occupational classifications for workers in green infrastructure. Most types of occupations have their own occupational code — for instance cashiers, such as those at your local supermarket — are 41-2012. There are no corresponding codes for a bioswales maintenance technician or for an installer of rainwater harvest devices. Instead, green infrastructure has been taken on by multiple disciplines across a number of sectors that spans construction, landscaping and water quality to name just three.
Over time, companies operating within the space may begin to focus on new business areas and create new job specialization — for instance, in permeable pavement installation or rainwater harvest. But right now the work is accomplished by a gamut of individuals across various occupations. Researchers settled on 30 occupations to study.
Authors write, “The total GI workforce in any given city can be defined broadly to include the individuals who contribute to the management, design, planning, permitting, finance, regulatory compliance, installation, maintenance, monitoring and inspection of all of the different types of green infrastructure …” Adding environmental protection and the supply chain for green infrastructure goods and services and the research community would further expand the workforce.
Currently, it’s estimated that about 3 million work in the 30 identified job codes that cover green infrastructure installation, maintenance and inspection jobs nationally. However, only a small number of the group is likely to work in a green infrastructure activity in the next year.
The report concludes that about 239,000, or 6%, of the total working in the 30 occupations are estimated to be involved in green infrastructure work, according to the Institute for Compensation Studies at Cornell University. Most are male and workers have on average of 14 years of school.
In nearly half of the occupations, involvement in green infrastructure work wasn’t greater than 5% based on an online survey conducted by Jobs for the Future. In 13 occupations, green infrastructure participation was estimated to be between 5% and 15%. Three occupations were higher: tree trimmers and pruners (75% involvement), and landscaping/grounds keeping and forest/conservation workers both at 25% involvement.
Many green infrastructure workers have “expanded their responsibilities to include green infrastructure activities.” This is in addition to the traditional work they were already doing.
Training. While currently those working in these green infrastructure installation, maintenance and inspection jobs may not have formal education beyond high school, certification programs and other credentials are being developed as the industry evolves. Some states have community college programs and national level certifications, like the Water Environment Federation’s GI certification have recently been launched.
Earnings. Pay for the 30 studied occupations spans between less than $15/hour to $26/hour. The breaks are about one-third less than $15/hour, one-third $15 to $20/hour and one-third $20 to $26/hour. Full-time pay ranges between just over $21,000/year up to $55,000/year. Many of the occupations are seasonal employees. While the pay per hour is about $6.44 less than the overall U.S. workforce, green infrastructure workers are more likely to have employer provided healthcare.
Job growth. About two thirds of the studied occupations will see growth through 2020. The top occupations with the greatest growth include general laborers, landscaping/groundskeepers, general maintenance/repair workers and construction laborers. When researchers studied job postings for installation, maintenance and inspection jobs, they found the greatest demand for water/wastewater plant/system operators, general maintenance/repair workers, maintenance technicians, construction inspectors, service technicians, and forest and conservation technicians.
Is it a business opportunity? The Jobs for the Future survey asked businesses how much of their revenue is derived from green infrastructure. Four hundred seventy-eight surveys were completed. Eight percent of the respondents make all of their revenues from green infrastructure activities. In the largest response, 36% said that green infrastructure installation, maintenance and inspection activities comprised from 1% to 25% of their revenue. The next highest was 17% of respondents saying GI activities comprised from 24% to 49% of revenues; 14% of respondents said 50% to 99% of revenues came from GI.
Recommendations. The report presented a number of ways stakeholders can advance job development in GI:
- To help foster GI job growth, communities can identify a regional intermediary to convene cross-sector stakeholders to foster dialogue around the GI workforce. Communities can also educate policy makers, legislators and government about the community benefits of GI.
- The training/education community can develop clear pathways to articulate the connection between GI jobs and related professions and engage employers across sectors to develop, review and refine curricula and programs. Training can also be targeted to underserved communities.
- GI employers can serve as advocates for GI in their own states and seek out collaborative relationships with the education and training community.
- Policy makers can accelerate the national momentum for GI working through existing national and state professional and membership organizations. They can also support professionalization of the GI workforce through state and local programs.
The GI jobs market is emergent, but sticky
My main takeaways after reading the report are framed by one-year-plus of infrequent, but insightful, conversations with one of the study researchers, Kevin Doyle. Through aggressive qualitative research, Kevin has developed a good grasp of the national state of green infrastructure—and quite a network, too. He’s spoken with many of the key players and has jumped in with both feet to develop a frame for the emergent discipline of GI.
Like many who would like to see a green jobs surge, I was disappointed that the JFF report didn’t document thousands of new businesses that have sprouted to deliver green infrastructure installation, maintenance and inspection services. Once I got over it, the thought occurred to me that whenever something appears rapidly and grows quickly, it’s generally not a good thing: Cancer comes to mind. That green infrastructure is developing more slowly is good. It’s sticky. Here are just a few points that I believe are supported by “Exploring the Green Infrastructure Workforce:”
- Green infrastructure is a strong, stable way to diversify an existing business within the array of disciplines that go into it: Engineering, planning, design, utilities, landscaping, etc. Eight percent of business respondents to Kevin’s online green infrastructure survey indicated 100% of their income is derived from green infrastructure. If you’re looking for a business reason to include green infrastructure in your five-year plan, cite this report.
- There’s good demand for green infrastructure employees as a career entry, with the possibility of rising to supervisor and perhaps on to management or a profession with additional training. The education piece can be bolstered by developing collaborations with industry. Certification is moving forward with a number of local and industry-specific programs. WEF’s national GI certification and other regional certifications (CBLP, EcoPro, etc.) can potentially offer employees a marketable credential for targeted employers.
- The fact that green infrastructure cuts across disciplines and those disciplines tend to be siloed from one another is documented in JFF’s results. Researchers were forced to identify a number of occupations across multiple industry sectors that can perform various pieces of green infrastructure installation, maintenance and inspection. I believe had they expanded their occupational horizons, the siloes would have been further magnified by adding engineers, city and regional planners, landscape architects, etc. If we’re going to move green infrastructure forward and deliver results on the ground that are possible with vegetated systems — well-placed plants and trees and green hardscapes like permeable pavement, cisterns and functional planter boxes — we need green infrastructure specialists that come hardwired with an understanding of the biological and physical sciences, and political/negotiating skills. We need to focus less on disciplines building and playing within their own sandboxes and more on really understanding what’s working and not working on the ground. That information shouldn’t be siloed, it should be shared widely so everyone wins. Tearing down silos begins with respecting multiple viewpoints and the perspectives they bring to the table.
Please share your experiences by commenting.
YouTube video about “Exploring the Green Infrastructure Workforce, A NatureWORKS Issue Brief.”
The project team included researchers from Cornell University and was led by Mary V.L. Wright from Jobs for the Future (JFF). JFF’s Sara Lamback is the lead author for the report. Funding was provided by the Kresge Foundation and the USDA Forest Service National Urban and Community Forestry Grant Program as recommended by the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council.
April 17, 2017 NewTerrain.