Let’s have the right debate on green jobs

An opinion by David Schejbal. June 23, 2010.

We’re spending a lot of time debating the number of green jobs that are likely to be created in the future. What will they be? By when? How many? Where? How can I get one? How will I know a green job when I see it?

The problem is we’re debating the wrong issue. There are no green jobs. A green job is like a math job. Every job is a math job. And every job is a green job. We need to step back from this conversation to focus on the real issues: New skills, new competencies, and a new world view. Recent events in the Gulf further reinforce that we must all understand the long-term impact of our actions on the environment.

Engineer or marketer, accountant or recruiter, CEO or stay-at-home mom, it makes no difference. If we are to succeed as individuals, as thriving businesses, and as a prosperous nation, every job description must take on a very discernible shade of green. That’s not just my perspective as someone who works at in the university system. It’s what I’m hearing from progressive business leaders in every industry.

The University of Wisconsin-Extension, the University of Wisconsin-Superior and three other UW campuses created the online Bachelor of Science in Sustainable Management. When we set out to build the nation’s first online bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Management, we asked companies like Ford Motor Company and Johnson Controls if they’d help us craft a curriculum for teaching the ‘Triple Bottom Line,’ which equips students to lead businesses that excel financially, socially and environmentally. The response was overwhelming. One of them literally told me, “You create this program, and we’ll hire the first graduate!” And we have the continued support of local employers such as Superior’s Enbridge Energy Co., which serves on our advisory board.

The reality is this: Water will not suddenly become plentiful. Energy will not get cheaper. The planet will not miraculously cool. Carbon has become currency, and water is not far behind. The view that a business practice either benefits business or benefits the environment is a trade-off that business can no longer afford. It’s not an either/or proposition. What’s good for the Earth is good for business.

Someone may argue that this doesn’t mean every job takes on a green tinge, but I disagree. There is no job that sustainability issues won’t touch. Consider:

  • The facilities manager who has to compare the costs of solar panels to clean coal to biofuels to determine both currency and carbon costs.
  • The human resources director who must gauge the long-term impact of today’s labor decisions on the welfare of the community tomorrow.
  • The product developer who must evaluate packaging processes to meet increasing sustainability standards.

With implications this far-reaching, the question becomes how can business best equip an entire workforce with the knowledge to perform to a new and far broader set of performance measures? One clear answer is education. Whether it’s a five-course certificate or a two-year program leading to a bachelor’s of science in Sustainable Management, what students learn online today, they put into practice the very next day on the job. In this way, employers can begin to make the transition from traditional accounting to triple bottom line management.

The economic landscape is radically changing in ways that redefine business performance and, ultimately, our nation’s prosperity. Understanding the intersections of the systems at work – natural systems, social systems, and business systems – is critical to every aspect of how we live and work. For instance, if we recognize and understand that the Earth is a closed system, then we must look at manufacturing very differently; we must look at the making of stuff (whatever it might be) as a loop and not as a line. The manufactured product, all of its byproducts, and every bit of the waste is ours to keep forever. We inhale it, we drink it, we walk on it, and we eat it in one form or other. Short of resettling on Mars, we cannot escape it.

We all must not just understand this concept, but live it. That’s not a green job. It’s everyone’s job.

David Schejbal is dean of Continuing Education, Outreach and E-Learning at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He is a member of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors and serves on the board of the University Continuing Education Association.

Read the original post in the Superior Telegram.