Saturday, September 8, 2007

Making a Living by Making a Difference

Eco-friendly jobs bloom locally and across the U.S. as companies, workers and governments go green...
Think globally, work locally.

Wind farms, ethanol plants and other earth-friendly ventures are creating a new class of green-collar jobs in the Buffalo area.

It’s part of a nationwide hiring trend this Labor Day as industries and governments fight pollution and the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

“The environmental area continues to expand — we have very high demand for our graduates,” said A. Scott Weber, chairman of the department of civil, structural and environmental engineering at the University at Buffalo.

Green-tinted jobs such as environmental engineers and hydrologists, who study ground water, will grow at “much higher than average” rates of 27 percent or more through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Locally, many jobs linked to the environment and clean energy are new and difficult to measure. They come from a wide range of employers, from consulting firms to government offices and renewable-energy companies that provide alternatives to oil and coal.

Whatever their number, green jobs are growing while many established employers are erasing blue-collar jobs.

At an ethanol fuel plant under construction in Medina, 50 permanent employees are being hired to launch production in December. Owner Western New York Energy is filling openings for operators, supervisors, lab techs and maintenance staff, Chief Financial Officer Mike Sawyer said.

Another planned ethanol plant in Buffalo, the River- Wright project, expects to have 65 permanent employees if it is built and 200 temporary construction jobs. Meanwhile, a forest of 67 wind turbines is sprouting in Wyoming County to join the eight Steel Winds turbines on Lake Erie.

Interest in eco-jobs is on fire, employers say, as workers strive to make a difference while they make a living.

“I get a call a day at least,” said Mark Mitskovski, project manager of the Steel Winds site in Lackawanna, which has three permanent maintenance jobs and several more on temporary status. “Some people don’t see much future in the industry that they’re in.”

Fortunately, skills from mainstream industries can transfer to green jobs.

Steel Winds maintenance chief Ron Kielbiewicz returned to the Buffalo area after working at a power plant in Arizona. His crew includes a former auto-repair worker and a manufacturing worker with welding experience.

“People in Western New York are usually multitasking people with [mechanical] experience — that’s a big plus for us here,” he said.

North Tonawanda native Jaime Davidson got her master’s in environmental engineering at UB in 2001, combining a head for math with a desire to make a difference. Now she works on protecting drinking water and rehabilitating sewer infrastructure at consultant Parsons Engineering Science in Amherst.

“I really believe in what I’m doing — I like making communities better,” she said.

Earnings thrive

Going green doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing income. Environmental engineers in Erie and Niagara counties earned $73,900 a year on average, according to federal Occupational Employment Statistics, while environmental techni- cians earned $35,880 on average. There are 210 environmental engineers working in Erie and Niagara counties, plus 80 environmental engineering technicians.

Many green jobs come from an unlikely source: corporate America. Fortune 500 companies are creating openings as pollution cleanup technologies grow as a source of sales and profits.

At Praxair’s research campus in the Town of Tonawanda, for example, engineers are pursuing clean-coal technology to take greenhouse gases out of smokestacks and bury them in the ground. Another engineering group designs hydrogen fueling stations for future generations of zero-pollution cars.

“These sorts of programs are enabling us to grow, and as we grow we need to hire more people,” said Dan Yankowski, Praxair vice president for global supply systems at Tonawanda.

Of the 1,100 Praxair employees on the site, about 80 percent are working on projects that aid the environment in some fashion, he said, including by reducing energy use at smokestack industries. Their skills range from lab technicians to Ph.D. engineers.

Political support

There’s more than good ecological intentions behind the trend — government incentives to go green are everywhere. New York is among 10 Northeast states pledging to cap carbon- dioxide emissions and roll them back 10 percent by 2019 under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The state Dormitory Authority announced its future construction will meet “green building” standards for design and energy efficiency, part of the governor’s plan to cut energy use 15 percent by 2015.

In Washington, Congress is considering making $120 million a year available to train workers in the clean energy sector through the Green Jobs Act of 2007. Federal subsidies already support the ethanol fuel blend E85 as an alternative to gasoline.

Just what constitutes a green job can be open to interpretation, as employers seek to attract planet-conscious young workers.

There are 19 companies with Buffalo-area offices listed at the Web site. They range from engineering consultancies to corporate training services and one that operates a hazardous waste landfill.

At college recruiting offices, it is common for all sorts of companies to describe themselves as committed to the environment.

“I think the kids see through it,” said Dan Ryan, director of career services at UB. “It’s one of those phrases like ‘dynamic work environment’ — over time it means less.”

By Fred O. Williams

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