President Obama announced plans to create “green jobs” as part of the Reinvestment and Recovery Act passed earlier this spring. He was quoted as saying "A green, renewable-energy economy isn't some pie-in-the-sky, far-off future. It is now. It is creating jobs now."
The new law provides money and development programs for adopting environmental technologies and helping to expand green projects. Green projects that reduce the use of fossil fuels and expand renewable energy, retrofit buildings, expand mass transit, or longer term initiatives like solar power, wind mill farms and bio-fuels will increase jobs and employment.
Telecommuting could save fossil fuels and reduce green house emissions, which makes it a green initiative but unlike the green projects mentioned above it conflicts with work and jobs. Telecommuting and outsourcing are possible because digital technologies applied in computing and communications let people work anywhere and anytime.
Outsourcing usually has more attention than telecommuting in the popular media, but they are nearly the same and have the same potential to reduce employment. For example, take the customer service representative, which holds 8th place among America’s occupations with 2.1 million total jobs in nearly every sector of the economy, but especially when we need assistance in finance and insurance.
Customer Service Representative gets media attention because America’s corporations outsource some of this work to India and other countries. Many regard outsourcing as the action of ruthless corporate tycoons ripping the heart out of America, but allow me to suggest outsourcing is very much a telecommuting issue.
Over 80 percent of Customer Service Representative jobs are reported for the country’s metropolitan areas, where millions commute by car and donate thousands of hours of their time using up gasoline and wearing out their cars so that others might work. Unlike production workers who must work at factories, Customer Service Representatives work can be anywhere with a computer and a telephone, as the companies themselves have so definitely proved.
Doing computer work from home as telecommuters not only reduces jobs in the automobile industry, car repairs, gasoline, cement, and highway construction, but also for jobs in real estate, office rental, building maintenance, building repair and local government. Quarter-time telecommuting potentially reduces office demand by 25 percent.
The Obama energy initiatives attempt to develop new supplies of energy that will cut down on fossil fuels and green house emissions and create jobs. Politically it should be much easier to do because it avoids sacrifice. Telecommuting confronts America with conflicts and trade offs. Telecommuting can save resources and reduce green house emissions, it will also eliminate jobs.
Business has similar incentives to expand telecommuting as it does outsourcing to other countries. Government has begun to experiment with limited telecommuting. If America gets serious about green house gases it should expect to confront the conflict between energy and jobs. The Obama plan does the easy things first, but it may not be enough. More green initiatives will require us to change the way we think about work and jobs.