Center for American Progress

Green Jobs Help the Planet and Communities of Color

Green Jobs Help the Planet and Communities of Color

Further Investments Can Yield More Opportunities

Abigail Ridley-Kerr and Jorge Madrid show how green jobs are an economic boon to communities of color in urban centers.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), left, greets employees during her visit to a lithium-ion battery maker to talk about creating green jobs and producing clean energy, Tuesday, July 6, 2010, in Los Angeles. (AP/Nick Ut)
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), left, greets employees during her visit to a lithium-ion battery maker to talk about creating green jobs and producing clean energy, Tuesday, July 6, 2010, in Los Angeles. (AP/Nick Ut)

When Earth Day celebrated its first year in 1970, the words “green” and “job” were disparate concepts. Today, however, on the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, green jobs are remaking and transforming the economy to be less polluting, more efficient, and more equitable. In addition to helping the planet by reducing pollution and greenhouse gases, green jobs also provide economic opportunity for communities of color in urban centers that have felt the worst of the economic recession.

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These jobs are on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Green Goods and Services—defined as jobs in businesses that produce goods and provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources—accounted for 3.1 million U.S. jobs in 2010, or 2.4 percent of total employment that year. These jobs span a wide variety of sectors—including construction, manufacturing, professional services, and science- and research-related fields.

Nowhere has this growth been more striking than in America’s urban centers. According to a recent Brookings Institution report, green job growth outpaced traditional job growth at a rate of nearly 2-to-1 in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan centers from 2008 to 2010. Another study from the Apollo Alliance, the Initiative for a Competitive City, and Green for All found that inner-city green jobs grew at 10 times the rate of jobs overall in the last decade. It’s no surprise, then, that urban centers account for roughly two-thirds of green-job-sector employment. 

The rapid expansion of green jobs is particularly significant in light of the country’s changing demographics. The top five urban regions of green job growth are also home to large concentrations of communities of color. According to data from the 2010 Census, people of color compose more than half the population in all five regions. (see table)


The burgeoning green jobs sector offers three economic advantages for urban communities of color:

  • Green jobs are diverse. Jobs in the green sector run the gamut from research technology positions to construction and manufacturing positions, and 45 percent of all green jobs in the United States are held by workers with a high school diploma or less.  This diversity allows for greater entrance into the field—across traditional barriers like socioeconomic status and educational attainment. 
  • Green jobs provide quality, career-level opportunities. Brookings reports that 41 percent of the nation’s green jobs offer medium- to long-term career-building and training opportunities. This kind of upward mobility helps break cycles of poverty by promoting an effective alternative to low-paying service-sector jobs. Green for All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins explains, “Green jobs are revitalizing our economy and these well-paying careers are providing pathways out of poverty for a large number of historically under-served, under-employed people in communities across our nation.”    
  • Green jobs are concentrated in growth industries. Green jobs have outperformed the overall economy, and the industry is only beginning to show its potential for growth. Clean energy, a major sector of the green economy, is already valued at more than $246 billion globally and is expected to reach a market value of $385 billion in 2021, according to analysis by Clean Edge, a leading clean-tech research and consulting firm. According to a new report by the Pew Environment Group, 2011 clean energy investments in the United States experienced a 42 percent increase from the previous year.

All of this is great news for communities of color in urban areas, where opportunities in the green job sector are continuing to grow. Further, a commitment to investing in cleaner alternatives will yield even more job growth. Recent data from the Renewable Energy Policy Project and the Energy Information Administration indicates that if the United States provided enough new wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass energy to power 25 percent of our electricity, we could generate 1 million jobs in the manufacturing sector alone. These kinds of new investments will broaden the green jobs sector and directly benefit all Americans.

Green jobs are mutually beneficial for the planet and communities of color. The green economy has seen its largest jump in growth in America’s urban centers, providing communities of color with diverse, career-level employment options. With the right mix of policies and support, the green jobs sector can continue to provide a strong outlet for equitable and environmentally sustainable growth. 

Abigail Ridley-Kerr is an intern with CAP’s Progress 2050 department and Jorge Madrid is a Research Associate with the Energy Policy team.

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Jorge Madrid

Research Associate & Policy Analyst