Live From Greenbuild 2008: Green Collar Jobs-Hype or Reality?

“Green collar” evangelist Van Jones spoke last week at Greenbuild of Obama’s election victory, to the thousands of architects, designers and engineers, “It’s not that we now have a president who’s black. It’s that for the first time we have a president who’s actually green.”

Now that Obama has been elected, “green collar” evangelist Van Jones has updated his shtick: “It’s not that we now have a president who’s black. It’s that for the first time we have a president who’s actually green,” Jones hailed from his pulpit last week at Greenbuild to the thousands of architects, designers and engineers in the audience enraptured by his oratory. Jones–who flaunts the looks of Denzel Washington, the poetics of Obama, and the comedic timing of Chris Rock–spent most of his hour and a half lecture breaking down how the perfect storm of the economic collapse, energy crisis and new presidential regime will catalyze the green collar economy.


He talked about how systemic breakdowns like the one we’re experiencing are necessary for breakthroughs. How for the past three decades our economy was built on the fallacies of consumption, debt, and environmental destruction, and we instead need to rebuild our economy on local production, thrift, and environmental restoration. “We have a Saudi Arabia of wind in our plain states. We have a Saudi Arabia of solar in our sun belt,” he raptured on. How we need to move to a cap and trade system, “retrofit” America (“unlock the value trapped in our old buildings…”homes and solar panels don’t build themselves”), and build a clean energy grid.

To the skeptics “who say this is fantastical” said Jones, “we’ve done this before.” He likened massive investments like a clean energy grid to the International Highway System that was built for national security reasons, but ended up transforming how goods could be transported across the country and exploded the economy. Again, how the Internet was created for governmental reasons, and transformed how we communicate, sell, and consume.

By the end of his speech, Jones–of more guru lineage than grit–had certainly given new hope to the crowd of building designers still digesting the implications the mortgage crisis will have on their trade. But one thing his speech didn’t capture was the brutal reality of being on the ground doing the difficult work. During the Q&A, a ponytailed 30-something from New Orleans explained he’d been training blue collar workers for green collar jobs. “We’ve been promising them when they finish the program there will be jobs waiting for them. But it turns out it’s a field that is still very much emerging and loose. What do we tell them if they can’t find these jobs?” he posed to the guru. For a moment, Jones stumbled over his typical eloquence, eventually finding his note: “I think it’s time for our graduates to be political activists. They need to be marching in the streets, getting bills passed!”

An important call to action by Jones, for sure. But the lingering feeling was that there’s still a very long and precarious road ahead. There are clearly still a lot of ‘if”s. And if the reality of green collar jobs doesn’t soon meet the hype, there may be even more out of work Americans in despair. Are you seeing signals that green collar jobs are happening?


About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton.