Although the recession has emptied shopping malls and filled jobless centers, the call has only gotten louder for renewable energy, environmentally gentle products and eco-friendly practices -- and for people to make all of that happen.
President Obama has said that he hopes to create 5 million green jobs within a decade. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that the "green economy" could account for as much as 10% of job growth over the next 30 years.
The job description casts a wide net. The green ranks can include autoworkers making hybrid cars, building consultants, home energy auditors, environmental studies professors, wind turbine engineers, lawyers for biofuel companies and many more.
Some will be new positions; others will involve workers from traditional industries tweaking their former skills.
So here's a look at where to find green jobs, how to prepare for them and how to land a spot.
Even before the recession, the green-jobs market was growing at a faster pace than overall employment in most states, with California leading the trend, experts say. The growth rate of green jobs nationwide was 9.1% from 1998 to 2007, compared with a 3.7% increase for all jobs during the same period, according to a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
A UC Berkeley study concluded that "the renewable energy sector generates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, per unit of energy produced and per dollar of investment, than the fossil fuel-based energy sector."
Even bastions of traditional industries, including the United Steelworkers union, support teaching green skills to preserve manufacturing and combat outsourcing.
Billions of dollars from clean-tech venture capitalists have poured into California -- $3.3 billion in 2008, more than double the amount in 2007, according to Palo Alto research group Next 10.
There's room for workers of all backgrounds and income brackets on that rising tide. In 2007, the nearly 125,500 clean-energy workers in California were pulling in $21,000 to $111,000, Pew found.
Daniel Morabito, 29, who was recently hired as a solar panel installer, said his salary at SolarCity is competitive with and far more stable than his paycheck from his previous commission-based job closing film deals. Now he has full benefits, stock options and more potential for long-term growth, he said.
After spending three years wearing a suit and tie in a downtown Los Angeles office, the Hermosa Beach resident recently toiled with two co-workers on top of a Westwood home.
Since June, the Foster City, Calif., company has hired 120 people, 41 of them in Southern California. An additional 180 hirings are expected in the next three months.
Morabito had no experience working with electrical wiring, but he researched the company and marched into the SolarCity warehouse with his resume, he said.
"Everyone's talking about solar these days," he said. "I missed being outside and really wanted to work with my hands. But I didn't know what to expect."
And now, a splash of cold water: Despite the potential of the green industry, the economic rough patch has saturated the job market with applicants. And some researchers caution that the green economy's potential has been exaggerated.
"Indeed, the green jobs literature claims resemble the promises of long-term financial prosperity offered by Ponzi schemes," concluded a study titled "Green Jobs Myths," released by the University of Illinois and Case Western Reserve University.
Green positions run from the predictable, such as eco-activism work, to more unconventional careers.
"Nobody really knows what green jobs are anyway," said Tom Savage, a managing partner at Bright Green Talent, a job-search firm in San Francisco. "There's a whole gradient of color between the greenest jobs and the non-green. But it's more important to get excited that more jobs are greening in general."
Many of those positions involve skills that can be transferred from other lines of work.
Some companies are scooping up laid-off employees from other industries. Serious Materials in Sunnyvale, Calif., which makes energy-saving construction materials and has the ambitious goal of avoiding 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions, bought a bankrupt window company in Pennsylvania in January and rehired some of the workers.
Green job seekers need to be imaginative. Potential employers can be found in unexpected areas, even the adult entertainment industry, said Alliyah Mirza, who launched her Earth Erotics website out of Portland, Ore., three years ago.
Demand for her wares -- natural lubricants, recycled-rubber whips and plastic-free sex toys, among them -- has grown at a rate that is "almost hard to keep up with," she said. Mirza's suppliers include massage oil manufacturers and glass makers that are exploring eco-friendly products.
"As the market grows, there will be a huge open field," she said.
Sometimes, switching into a green job can cause culture shock.
Although pulling solar panel installers and engineers from roofing and construction industries is usually painless, former home builders used to high profits can be flummoxed by the low-margin, volume-driven nature of the solar industry, said Angiolo Laviziano, chief executive of REC Solar.
The San Luis Obispo company, which started in 1997 with fewer than 10 people, is constantly hiring salespeople and marketers and expanding its crew of more than 400 installers, Laviziano said. Despite a "mixed year" that has included layoffs at the company and a recession, REC has hired 40 employees this year.
But Laviziano, a former investment banker, has also run into trouble finding qualified applicants for mid- to senior-level management. One position, which would involve leading a commercial sales team to make pitches to big-box retailers and government facilities, has been unfilled for half a year.
Around two-thirds of all energy-efficiency jobs in 2004 were considered middle-skill, or requiring less than a bachelor's degree. Meanwhile, 13% of positions were high-skill and 21% were low-skill, according to a report last month from the Workforce Alliance.
Sometimes, previous green experience is a plus, while other companies prefer to train their new hires on-site. Businesses such as Boots on the Roof in Fremont, Calif., are springing up to offer green courses and certification.
The nonprofit Solar Energy International has a seven-acre campus in Colorado, online courses and worldwide workshops on sustainable building and transportation, hydro and wind turbine maintenance and more. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.'s PowerPathway program offer similar sessions.
CleanEdison has educated thousands of workers in green building practices, including the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED standard and energy auditing.
Community colleges also are feeding the boom.
Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa is developing a solar installation certification program, with one course already filled to capacity. Water purification and chemical technology are among the certificate and degree programs at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.
Several for-profit schools have jumped into such training. Anaheim University's Kisho Kurokawa Green Institute offers several graduate-level certificates and degrees, many of them online.
The unemployed could be eligible for federal grant money for green jobs training.
This summer, the Labor Department released guidelines for distributing $500 million in grants to boost energy efficiency and renewable energy employment. For more information on funding, job seekers should call a One-Stop or WorkSource career center.
Choosing a program can be like trying to infiltrate a secret society, said Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, chief executive of Green for All, a group dedicated to creating a clean energy economy. Caution is key, she said, because some recent entrants to the training business might not have a deep faculty bench and not all jobs require a major investment.
"The skills involved are not as advanced as most people think," she said. "Most can be achieved through a minimal amount of training."
Some industries, such as algae-based biofuels, are still relatively new and focused on research and development instead of aggressive expansion.
But there are open doors even there, said Riggs Eckelberry, chief executive of OriginOil Inc. The Los Angeles company has only 10 full-time employees, most of them scientists with doctorates, and expects to have only 30 at its peak.
The biofuel market is a magnet for start-ups, which tend to hire in waves as they launch, Eckelberry said. Interested applicants should join networking groups to keep up to date on company debuts and try to slip in by wangling an internship.
"Just get into any company and get some experience on any level," he said. "Don't worry too much about whether the company is going to succeed or blow up, because all those people will create your network."
Successful applicants can also demonstrate their interest by reading about clean tech, renewable energy or the general green market on online forums such as www.greencollarblog.org. Informational sessions at industry conventions are helpful, as is visiting companies.
"Some of the very best people were proactive and just came up to us and gave us their resumes," said Laviziano of REC Solar. "People who have done their research always impress me."
Some specialist positions require rigid discipline, while start-ups and consumer-focused businesses often look for people who are quick on their toes. But experts said most employers, especially more established eco-organizations, are gradually shifting to candidates who are more professional and profit-minded than just those with raw energy. Enthusiasm, however, is still key.
"Companies are looking for someone who's passionate, who's looking to find meaning in the day-to-day job," Savage of Bright Green Talent said. "And that's perhaps unique to the green sector."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Here are some resources for job seekers interested in the clean-tech, renewable energy and sustainability industries.
* GreenJobs: The site has 45,000 registered job seekers and offers recruitment services and a directory of renewable energy companies and organizations. Visit www.greenjobs.com.
* Sustain Lane: The green job listing section contains advice for recent graduates, discussion boards and job hunting tips, including tutorials on green resume-writing and networking. Visit www.sustainlane.com/ green-jobs.
* Green Jobs Network: This Berkeley-based site has a job board, links to other job boards, a blog about career resources and a group on LinkedIn with around 10,000 members. It also organizes career fairs and informational sessions. Visit www.greenjobs.net.
* Sustainable Business.com: Under the Green Dream Jobs tab, the site lists hundreds of opportunities around the world. The New York site is about to launch the Green Jobs Education Directory, which will list green degree programs in the U.S.
* For a list of other relevant websites, visit www.eco businesslinks.com/environ mental_jobs.
Source: Times research