Green light for a boom in jobs

February 20, 2010

Sleek, black and curva-ceous – Christopher Pett’s top selling Reee chair is the epitome of stripped-down modern design. It is aimed at the café market, and many of the chair’s occupants will be unaware that they have encountered the materials before: the black plastic back and seat are made from recycled Sony Playstations.

Pett opened Pli Design in Dul-wich, London, in 2003 when he gave up his career in event management to handcraft environmentally friendly furniture with none of the exorbitant costs – or clunky appearance – usually associated with the tag. Now a period of rapid expansion has led to a full order book and a product range that includes bamboo coffee tables and a “grass” series of chairs and units constructed from a special wood-free straw composite that has a consistency similar to chipboard.

Pett said he didn’t expect to be at the forefront of a wave of new green jobs. “I just wanted to manufacture my own products and thought there could be a sustainable way of doing that in styles that also looked good. I’m still suspicious of the idea of a green community – our clients include entertainment producers in London, Notting-ham housewives and Brighton bankers. There is a seed of ‘greenness’ but it has yet to spread coherently.”

Despite this, Pli Design exemplifies the growth of the green-collar sector heralded by Gordon Brown, David Cam-eron, Barack Obama and the United Nations as the future source of employment for millions in recession-hit western countries that have seen traditional areas of manufacturing stripped to the bone and shipped overseas. President-elect Obama recently promised to create 5m new jobs for Americans making solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and wind turbines. Jobs, he stressed, that “cannot be outsourced”. This month business secretary Peter Mandelson claimed that 800,000 UK workers were employed in jobs associated with the green sector, a figure he estimated would rise to more than 1m. The Green New Deal will be at the heart of economic rejuvenation.

“The market for green-collar jobs is huge,” said Neil Bentley of the CBI employers’ organisation. “The issue is whether the government can provide a clear steer on how to make the transition to a low-carbon economy. Without that policy framework, business will not have the confidence to invest.”

Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) agrees. The NEF is the think-tank that coined the phrase New Green Deal, which was quickly seized on across the political spectrum. “It is about making a transition from a throwaway consumption society to longevity, maintenance and repair. We need long-term energy security in this country, we need a transport infrastruc-ture that reflects the fact that in 2020 we will have reached the point where oil production can no longer meet demand. And a green revolution will be employment-intensive. We need lots of people to physically make that transition happen.”

Simms believes that reform of the financial system is at the heart of moving ahead. “The financial system should be there to support a productive economy, not have us dancing to its tune. Because of the recent crisis the government now has the levers to influence banks in terms of investing in areas like renewable energy.”

Three years ago Alice Chapple left such a financial career in the City to work on sustainable investments for the Forum for the Future, a group that campaigns for sustainable development. “I had worked on a lot of issues concerning the developing world, so the path was fairly straightforward for me. Now I work on clean technology, micro finance and how to make carbon markets work. It’s an example of how you can be, say, an accountant and move into the environmental sector without losing your skills and expertise.”

Leaving business to work for the Forum for the Future presented Chapple with the challenge of how to ensure that her voice was still heard in the corporate world. More personally, she said: “My husband was a bit disappointed that we no longer had a City salary, and my children would like nicer holidays. But I think they accept that a happy mother is better than a rich mother . . . most of the time.”

Chapple is confident that her mixture of skills and experience means that new career challenges will be available if she continues to work in the environmental sector. Though some analysts have compared the boom in green jobs with the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s, Chapple said the green-collar job market was likely to continue growing because a large-scale global response to climate change and energy concerns was unavoidable.

The issue for many is not if that global response will come, but whether Britain has an adequately skilled workforce to take advantage of the opportunity. Recent British innovations in renewable energy have been taken up by Scandinavia, Holland and Germany, where government regulation and subsidies are considered more encouraging. Though Britain is well placed in sectors that include marine and wind technology, experts admit that in the medium term British green-collar jobs may be more brawn than brain – loft laggers rather than nuclear engineers.

“Skills and education are crucial. Government should be concentrating on science in schools to make this work,” said the CBI’s Bentley. “It is also important to understand that not all the jobs created will be new. Many will involve the ‘greening’ of existing jobs. As companies and the public sector have to conform to new regulations, all jobs, including those in finance and sales, will involve taking green factors into consideration.”

AT Pli Design, Pett said the reason for his success was often overlooked – it was that he had integrated the green economy into good business practice. “We don’t lecture, and we don’t ask people to buy our furniture because it is environmentally friendly. We have done well because our products are nice to look at, comfortable to use – and they literally don’t cost the Earth.”

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