Brad Mohring had reached a crossroads. Until recently the 31-year-old design engineer had worked for a Toledo, Ohio-based company that builds manufacturing equipment for automobile plants. With the auto industry struggling, he figured it was only a matter of time before he’d be laid off. So this spring he began looking for a new job. In a few weeks he had four offers. Today he could have been working for a giant defense contractor or an established agricultural company. Instead, he chose the lowest-paying job-and became the 20th employee at Xunlight, a Toledo-based solar-energy firm. “I left a job I’d worked at for 12 years to join a start-up,” says Mohring, who has a 1-year-old child and another due in February. “It’s something of a gamble, but if it pays off, it pays off big.”

It’s becoming a common bet. With oil prices near record highs and more companies concerned about their carbon footprints, workers are finding job opportunities in the emerging green economy. Companies are hiring scientists to work on renewable-energy technology and business people to market earth-friendly products. Even if some of these nascent companies falter, there’s widespread conviction that this sector will become one of the country’s hottest employers. “This is the challenge of the 21st century … and it’s not going away,” says Kevin Doyle, founder of the consulting firm Green Economy.

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