Green and smart: ICT jobs for tomorrow

No job for a lady? Ada, Countess of Lovelace,the world’s first programmer

There used to be adverts on buses and trains saying “If u cn rd this u cd gt a rly gd job”. At the time, I nvr figured out what the jb was, but now I realise it was probably to write software for texting applications. Like everything else, sms had its origins in Victorian love poems (and if you don’t believe me, look at this). However, when clever Charles Bombaugh was writing about loving “U 2 X S,/ U R virtuous and Y’s”, the only programmer in the country had been dead for about 20 years, and the computer she wrote the algorithm for, clever Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, was never built.

The memory of Countess Lovelace (for it was she) lives on in the programming language Ada named in her honour, but today most programmers are men, or boys (they’re getting younger every day). Women account for only 30% of ICT sector employment and 20% of ICT specialist occupations. Both categories are recruiting and resisted the impacts of the crisis more than most, and companies are looking abroad to fill the gaps, either by recruiting immigrant workers or offshoring the tasks.

Companies and governments are also facing a new challenge according to a report prepared by OECD analysts Christian Reimsbach-Kounatze and Cristina Serra Vallejo: developing the competences for a “greener and smarter” economy. The link with “smarter” is obvious, but at first sight, it’s hard to see what’s green about ICT. Electronic waste is one of the fastest growing types and according to the UN, around 40 million tons of waste from electrical and electronic equipment, WEEE, are generated each year from the products we throw away. In 2005, visitors to London could see the Weee man, a 7 metre high giant composed of the estimated electrical and electronic waste one UK citizen will discard in a lifetime.

There’s also what’s sometimes called “digital waste”, the terabytes of forgotten emails, photos, videos and so on kept online. It all has to be physically stored somewhere, along with the files we actually use, and server farms and the data centres that host them have an impact on the environment through the electricity generated to run the equipment and cool the buildings. Google for instance said that its offices and data centres emitted over 1 million tons of carbon in 2010, claiming that the figure would have been twice as high without efforts to reduce its footprint.

Data centres and other ICT infrastructures are increasingly vital for all sectors of the economy, and green growth strategies will require people capable of both greening ICT itself and helping ICT to make other activities greener. ICT skills and employment: New competences and jobs for a greener and smarter economy (the OECD report mentioned above) argues that promoting ICT skills in the green and smart economy pays a double dividend by encouraging job creation and accelerating the transition to green growth.

The jobs wouldn’t just be in the sector itself. Employment in the ICT industry and employment of ICT specialist skills each accounts for up to 5% of total employment in OECD countries, but ICT intensive-users account for more than 20% of all workers in all branches. A car mechanic I know told me that when he started working 30 years ago, the first thing you did when a car came in to the repair shop (apart from telling the client it was a big job and would be ready on Tuesday) was to get your hands dirty poking around the engine or jacking it up, whereas now you start by plugging it in to a computer. And hundreds of other jobs across the whole skills range now need knowledge of ICT as well.

A clear and widely accepted definition of what a green job actually is doesn’t exist yet, therefore the report uses a definition from another OECD study: “…jobs that contribute to protecting the environment and reducing the harmful effects human activity has on it (mitigation), or helping to better cope with current climate conditions (adaptation)”.

On that basis, some of the new jobs will be in the ICT sector, writing software or developing and manufacturing environmentally efficient semiconductors and other products for instance. Other green jobs will be related to greening the economy, for example working on the systems that operate wind farms or installing and maintaining the equipment that smart buildings use to control lighting and temperature.

Given the potential of ICT to boost both green growth and employment, it’s surprising to learn that only a minority of governments are explicitly promoting green ICT-related skills and jobs according to an OECD survey.

Useful links

OECD work on ICT skills and employment

OECD work on green growth

Are boys and girls ready for the digital age? Report from OECD-PISA on how proficient 15-year-olds are in gathering and processing information from printed and digital material:

  • On average, girls outperform boys in digital reading; however, the gender gap is narrower than it is for print.
  • Among boys and girls with similar levels of proficiency in print reading, boys tend to have stronger digital navigation skills and therefore score higher in digital reading.

OECD Forum 2010 Green jobs: Myth or reality?

The photo below from the Wildverband web site sums up a lot of the issues debated in this wide-ranging session.

These children are recycling waste. Are they doing a green job?  If we admit that they are, then that prompts another question. Does defining this as green make it any better?

The second question is easier to answer. Nobody would justify child labour on a rubbish dump by saying it’s good for the planet. Another way to look at it is to say that underlying the notion of green jobs is the idea that they’re “better” than other jobs from the standpoint of sustainability, and that means not just the environment, but social and economic aspects too.

One idea on which there was consensus was that if green jobs means anything, it’s as part of a revolutionary change in the way the economy is organised – in how goods are produced and how they are consumed.

In Denmark, for instance, the government decided to promote the windpower industry, and the country is now a world leader in windmills. So you could say that the workers building them are in green jobs. But what about the steelworkers who make the masts and other parts? Their factories may be highly polluting, but their end product is designed to reduce pollution.

One suggestion was that the real debate is not about green jobs, but about what progress means, and the fact that this involves tradeoffs, perhaps of material wealth for other forms of well-being.

As I said at the start, the session was wide-ranging, with more questions than answers:

Will the fact that the babyboom generation is retiring make the economy greener?

Will all the green jobs go to China, and does it matter?

Can policy makers promoting green jobs be smarter than the markets or will green jobs just be white elephants?