Green jobs – do they live up to expectations?

An Austrian study challenges assumptions that ‘green’ jobs, those that have an element of environmental protection or sustainable management of resources, are largely high-quality, middle-class occupations. The study, commissioned by Austria’s Chamber of Labour, examines the quality of work likely to be offered by such jobs and questions whether they will be a key potential source of new employment and sustainable economic growth, as is often claimed in current public debate.

About the study

A study, Green jobs: Working conditions and employment potential (in German, 795KB PDF), was commissioned by the Austrian Chamber of Labour and conducted by the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS) in 2012.

The explicit aim of the study was to provide initial insights into the working conditions in green jobs. It was based on secondary analysis of quantitative data, the evaluation of research results and expert interviews.

The study uses the Eurostat concept of the environmental goods and services sector (EGSS) as its guiding definition of green jobs because this concept allows for a broad empirical definition of what constitutes a green job. Eurostat identifies producers of goods, technologies and services that have some element of environmental protection or sustainable management of natural resources as EGSS enterprises. The definition includes:

…goods and services that have been produced for the purpose of preventing, reducing and eliminating pollution and any other degradation of the environment …and preserving and maintaining the stock of natural resources and hence safeguarding against depletion. (Eurostat)

Main findings

Volume and structure of green jobs

Using the Eurostat definition of EGSS, the study concludes that there were 200,000 green jobs in Austria in 2009, a rather low level of 5% of total employment. Green jobs have however increased even during the economic crisis, up 3% since 2008–2009. This is not a net additional increase, and is instead due to a drift from traditional employment to green jobs. Four-fifths of green jobs are in environmental services (40%) and goods (39%), and environmental technologies play a relatively minor role (12.5%).

Working conditions in green jobs

The Eurostat EGSS definition provides for a relatively straightforward evaluation of the volume and development of green jobs, but doesn’t make it possible to examine certain occupations or employees in detail.

The study therefore had to approach green jobs by examining data for certain sectors, even though not all jobs in a given sector or company can be classified as ‘green’. The study selected a number of sectors that have high shares of green jobs and analysed their data for working conditions.

This approach takes the view that about 50% of all green jobs are concentrated in three sectors: agriculture and forestry (20%); construction (17%); and water supply, covering sewerage waste management and remediation activities (13.5%). On the basis of secondary data analysis and desk research evaluating previous studies, the study assesses the working conditions in these sectors as being characterised by hard physical work, major health risks and above average quotas of precarious employment, such as temporary agency work.

The fourth major sector where green jobs are to be found is retail (11%), where collected data show an above-average incidence of part-time work, high flexibility demands, low income levels and below-average job tenure.

A higher quality of work and employment, mostly due to the higher skill levels required, seems to characterise a further two major sectors, energy supply and architecture, that each account for 6% of all green jobs. Whereas energy supply features high job stability, high wages, fewer health risks and less precarious employment, work in architecture is characterised by high flexibility demands, a high quota of precarious employment forms such as self-employment, and relatively low wages when compared to the academic skill levels required by the profession.

Conclusions

In contrast to the dominant perceptions commonly expressed in public debate, the study remains somewhat sceptical about green jobs as a key driver of job growth. Even though green jobs are on the rise, say the authors, they often simply replace traditional ones.

The study also illustrates that green jobs are not just the highly qualified, technology-based middle-class type of work that is most often the focus of official discourse, but is very much more varied and, in large part, characterised by hard physical work, substantial health risks and precarious employment.

Commentary

The study is a first attempt to address a hitherto neglected aspect of green jobs, attempting to assess the quality of work and scope for job creation that they might offer.

It also sheds light on the difficulty posed for further research into green jobs by the deficiencies of the existing data and current data collection practices. The study’s authors make it clear that the results of their approach, using the EGSS definition and sector-based analysis, can only be seen as an approximation of working condition assessment of green jobs. This highlights the need for further research to build up an accurate picture of the quality of work and employment possibilities of green jobs.

Nevertheless, the study makes valuable contribution to the current debate because its results challenge the dominant view of green jobs as high-quality, middle-class employment with significant potential for the creation of new jobs.

Manfred Krenn, FORBA

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