You can’t pick up a publication these days without seeing some reference to “green jobs” – who has them, what they do, what regions are taking a leadership role, etc.   That kind of attention on the green economy is certainly good, but so many of the studies and articles seem to miss the point because they approach green for “green’s sake.”

Two recent reports from the U.S Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration are good examples of taking a stab at measuring “green” business activity by counting the number of “green jobs” in Tennessee. I don’t take issue with the reports or the coverage, because in a pure numbers measurement things are what they are.

What I do call into question is whether we are counting the right things. To play off a popular political rallying cry … It’s the Economy, Stupid. Seems to me we would be much better off focusing on some things that have real, immediate financially measurable impact that helps the economy by both reducing energy use and saving money. A recent article in Newsweek outlines former President Clinton’s jobs blueprint. In that blueprint, you will find a number of practical suggestions and observations that are first economically focused, and secondarily (though not coincidentally) environmentally focused.

The conclusion is that there are lots of jobs in energy, but many of those are in using less of it in our everyday practices, rather than in a strict entrepreneurial focus on new discovery. The initiatives cited include such things as working with efficiency of radiators to prevent heat escape, rebuilding chillers to improve cooling efficiency, refurbishing the insulation on windows, installing sensors on lighting and air flow to limit waste, and establishing energy benchmarks for tenants.

Those five things alone, when done on the Empire State Building in New York, brought $4.4 million in annual positive savings, and created more than 250 jobs along the way. Imagine if that kind of approach were used in Memphis on every public building? There are hundreds of them. If each one underwent an Empire State Building-like retrofitting, we would save millions and put many people to work doing the tasks, but more importantly they would learn the skills that then transfer out into the private sector as well.

That is a Smart Green Strategy. Some companies in Memphis are already playing a leading role in the retrofit/smart energy usage state of economic development. Take a look at the Medtronic logistics and distribution campus. From state-of-the-art low energy conveyer systems, to efficient sterilization processes, to its commitment to green power consumption – this facility is filled with employees making a green impact. Take a look at FedEx’s EarthSmart initiatives, global fleet enhancements for fuel efficient planes, movement to hybrid and electric vehicles, and more than a decade of dedication to packaging from recycled materials. Look at the well-articulated, companywide initiatives aimed at reducing waste and increasing efficiency at Acreedo Health Group or Buckeye Technologies.

From each of these initiatives we see financial savings on one end, and skills and job creation on the other. From that foundation, entrepreneurship will bloom. At Memphis Bioworks we are taking a leadership role in green jobs training, bringing together educational institutions, unions and businesses to ensure our workforce changes with the demands of a green economy. This training is in partnership with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Green Jobs Training Program for funding and the Memphis Workforce Investment Network for local placement. Some of these jobs might not be sexy from a “green economy” standpoint, but they are plenty valuable from a practical, functional and economic impact perspective. While building a Smart Green Strategy around efficiency and further developing our existing business assets is a great place to start, we also cannot lose sight of other long-term opportunity that builds on our unique natural regional attributes.

Nothing I have discussed even touches on the AgBioworks® initiatives, which are the purest form of “green” business you can find. As I have written about in this forum before, our AgBioworks initiatives in biomass stretch across five states, with Memphis at the heart of the burgeoning bioeconomy utilizing plant-based materials in a wide variety of biobased materials including chemicals, plastics and biofuels. With the adaptive re-use of our idle industrial assets – repurposing, reutilizing and redeveloping infrastructure in a way that makes Memphis a key player in green industrial jobs – and with a focus on new energy crops across the region that make better use of agricultural resources for our farmers, we create an energy and economic development tool that will be rivaled by regions across the globe.

Our report on green jobs related to agbio can be found here.

A Smart Green Strategy is vital for our long-term economic vitality. Let’s not get hung up on studies and statistics that might or might not be measuring the right things. Let’s instead take steps today to have an immediate impact on costs, energy and jobs. This is an area where we can play a leadership role today while laying a foundation for tomorrow.