StateImpact, in collaboration with NPR and KUT Austin

UT Economists Doubt "Green" Jobs Economic Impact In Texas

The Obama administration is defending its push to fund "clean" or "green" industries, saying the economy is benefiting from thousands of new "green" jobs around the country. Critics have said the money could be better spent. Dave Fehling looked into the promise of "green" jobs here in the nation's energy capital.

It’s a Monday morning at a strip center near Houston’s old Astrodome.

“May I help someone over here?”

Dozens of job hunters have just about filled a Workforce Solutions state employment office.

“Anyone can do this...”

A few of them are in classroom listening to a pitch to do door-to-door sales.

“You get their signature on that little piece of paper. Sixty bucks in your pocket.”

But on some mornings here, the pitches have been “not” for traditional jobs, but instead for so-called “green” jobs. Federal tax money is being used to train workers to weatherize homes or install solar panels.

So far, one program in Houston that’s getting about $3 million in federal funds has trained 379 workers. Less than a third of them — 110 — have actually found green jobs according to the program’s managers.

Still, the intention sounds fine to a jobseeker we met named Leah.

“That would be good. But if they don’t have a green job, purple job do just fine!”

She brings up a good point that’s at the heart of a national debate: in a tough economy, does it make sense to subsidize green jobs to reduce unemployment?

“It just doesn’t look like it.”

Gurcan Gulen is an energy economist with the University of Texas.

“There are other sectors of the economy that would deal more bang for the buck. Traditional sectors like construction, transportation, infrastructure in general.”

He came to that conclusion earlier this year after analyzing studies that he says may have over-estimated new jobs created by green companies.

Michelle Foss is the chief energy economist at UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

“For the foreseeable future, we would be losing more than gaining from any policy that tried to cause a diversion of investment away from our traditional energy businesses and towards green energy businesses.”

Foss and her team of economists have warned Texas state officials that despite strides in green energy like wind, the best return on investment is still with “brown” energy like oil.

Advocates for green industries point out what the UT analysis also found: that green jobs can be hard to define and count so judging their impact is imprecise.

They say it’s no reason to doubt the benefit of reducing carbon and increasing social responsibility — even in a tough economy when a job, no matter what its color, can be hard to find.

Bio photo of Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Energy & Environment Reporter for StateImpact

Dave Fehling is KUHF's Energy and Environment Reporter. His reporting is a part of StateImpact, a collaboration with KUT in Austin and NPR...