State officials says Vermont can and must compete with other states for alternative enegry companies and "green tech" high-technology firms.
Commerce Secretary Kevin Dorn knows every state has its eyes fixed on the jobs created by green businesses. Every state is competing to woo alternative energy companies and “green tech” high-technology firms.
Even without the deep pockets of bigger, richer states, Vermont can and must compete, he said.
“This is the future,” he said. “Every place in the world wants the green jobs because that’s the future. People look at products differently now and having a green component helps market your product.”
There is no reliable count of the work force of Vermont’s green businesses or consensus about how to define a “green” company. The state Labor Department says the green work force remains small — perhaps a few thousand of the 300,000 jobs in Vermont.
Dorn and industry leaders believe changing markets and changing government policies will drive green job growth.
Last year’s soaring energy prices and worries about climate change drove new demand for wind, solar and bio-energy, as well as energy efficiency. The federal economic stimulus package under consideration in Washington is expected to power job growth in all these areas.
At the Vermont Energy Investment Corp., policy director Blair Hamilton estimates that just one piece of the stimulus package — $10 million for weatherization in Vermont — could create 100 to 200 new jobs.
A study commissioned by the American Solar Energy Society forecast that by 2030 the country could have 16 million to nearly 40 million jobs directly or indirectly related to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
“The potential is huge,” said Jan Blittersdorf, president of NRG Systems, a Hinesburg manufacturer of wind-measuring devices. “Until the credit problem, we had had 18 straight record months of sales growth. Once this problem takes care of itself, I expect we’ll be back on that path.”
“In a sector like ‘green,’ it is such a natural connection for Vermont. Our environmental ethic is widely known and it’s a good marketing tool for us” in attracting job-creating green businesses, said Economic Development Commissioner Betsy Bishop.
The state recruits out-of-state businesses at national trade shows, and last year offered tax-credit incentives for green businesses to add jobs.
But University of Vermont economist Art Woolf said the state shouldn’t count its chickens yet. He sees only modest potential for growth here.
“A reputation as a green state doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in terms of someone deciding where they are going to locate a facility,” he said.
“I’m sure there will be a few more construction jobs in energy efficiency, but I don’t think it will be extremely noticeable,” he said.
What’s a “green” job? There’s no agreement on that basic question.
“If I work at a green-certified hotel, does that make my job green? What if I make windmills, but I use a lot of chemicals in the manufacturing, am I a green job?” asks state Labor Commissioner Pat Moulton Powden.
When Powden’s department tried to count last year, they arrived only at a rough figure, one that certainly overestimates the number of jobs, she said.
“We came up with over 1,000 establishments engaged in what might be considered green sectors. They have 6,766 jobs, but we know not all those jobs are green,” she said.
Renewable Energy Vermont, a trade group, says the state’s 50 renewable energy businesses employed 546 workers in 2007 with total compensation of $36 million.
Vermont’s low-income weatherization program employs 90 people; private contractors employ dozens more.
Small environmental engineering and consulting firms, waste management firms, contractors learning to construct new homes to rigorous sustainability standards also generally fall into the “green” category. No one knows their total employment.
Some green businesses have grown into significant employers. One of the largest is Vermont Energy Investment Corp. in Burlington, which manages energy efficiency programs across the country. VEIC employs about 170 people and expects to add at least 20 to 30 jobs this year, Executive Director Scott Johnstone said.
More common are the small employers, people like Chip Patullo, an energy audit/weatherization contractor in Burlington. He employs two people and might expand.
“Right now we’re busy, while most everybody else in the construction business is hungry,” he said. “But I’m being cautious. I’ve expanded and contracted several times since I started in 1995.”
Down the road at solar installer groSolar in White River, founder and CEO Jeff Wolfe is looking for an accountant, a sales manager, a marketing vice president, a solar installer and support staff in sales and human resources.
“The two things I need are people with a good high school degree, and people with a good college degree. After that, I can take care of training them for our business,” Wolfe said.
Blittersdorf, at NRG, said engineers with wind-energy experience are particularly hard to find. But otherwise, the fast-growing field will need employees of all kinds.
“My advice would be — go get a skill, whatever it is, then choose where you will apply that skill. Growing companies need everybody,” she said.
Most NRG employees hold at least two-year college degrees, she said. A two-year electronics degree, or a two-year mechanical technician degree, from Vermont Technical College equips someone for a manufacturing job at NRG, she said.
Vermont Technical College has added a number of programs to prepare students for work in green technology. The first seven students in its Sustainable Design and Technology program will graduate this spring.
“It’s not just education in technology. This is designed to produce people who can talk across disciplines, so an employer can put them behind a sales counter or on a sales team,” said Joan Richmond-Hall, the program’s director.
The school’s Center for Sustainable Practices runs three-day certification courses for weatherization installers and is developing a similar course for solar installers.
Greg Wigginton of Salisbury offers himself as evidence that not every green job requires an advanced engineering degree. He left high school before graduating, but has raised a family on his pay at his weatherization job.
Wigginton had been working in construction when he took a job in 1991 as a weatherization installer for the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
He’s been promoted three times, but in the beginning the job wasn’t always a pleasant one, crawling around in basements and under mobile homes to close air leaks. The job paid $8.25 an hour (starting pay runs $10 to $12 now).
But, like many who work in environmental services or renewable energy, he found satisfaction in a larger mission.
“You see a lot of people who don’t have a lot, and that is one thing that drew me to this. I’m enriching lives, even though I’m not getting rich. You can make a difference. That’s why I’ve been here so long,” he said.