Hurry Up and Wait: Opportunities for Green Jobs Vary by Region and Field
Jay Antle, executive director of the Center for Sustainability at Johnson Community College, tracks green jobs training in the Midwest. Here, he tells us more about training for everything from corporate sustainability officers to clean energy, and why federal legislation is key.
CE: What are you seeing right now in terms of curriculum development for clean energy jobs?
JA: There’s a fair amount of “hurry up and wait.” A lot of schools are doing energy auditing, wind and solar training and other things, but a lot of colleges are waiting to see what comes out of the Copenhagen talks and the climate bill in Congress. Until some long-term policies are set on things like renewable energy portfolio standards, there are a lot of programs that aren’t going to really get underway, especially since lots of colleges this year and next year may be facing 10 and 15 percent cuts to total budgets. So I think the prevailing mood is that we have to wait a few more months and see.
CE: Is this true everywhere, or only in regions that lack state support for RE?
JA: Some places already have a lot of clean energy education in place: the obvious suspects like California. But it’s going to play differently in different parts of the country. In some places, like Kansas where I am, the low prices for electricity make it difficult to jumpstart renewable energy without federal policy. We pay about a third per kwH what people in CA do for electricity, and there won’t be a big jump in participation until there’s a federal or state incentive for proper pricing of energy. That’s not going to happen until we get legislation here.
I’ve done some analysis, and there’s lots of good news coming out of some places. There have been a couple of days in which Spain was getting 20 percent of its energy from wind. That’s happened in Texas as well, there have been days where they’ve gotten 25 percent of their electricity from wind. But like I said, the momentum you see will depend on where you are. Here in Kansas, we’re waiting on regulatory decisions on large-scale transmission lines for the ability to get power from wind farms to consumers. Kansas has the third highest potential for wind power generation in the country, but if we can’t get it to people then it’s not very useful, is it? And we can’t teach these skills to students unless we know that there will be some job options when they’re done.
CA: Is this true of all “green” fields?
JA: No, it depends. If you train to be a wind energy technician, you have a pretty good chance of getting a job right now. But energy efficiency is kind of hit or miss right now. We’re training our first cohort and we don’t know exactly how easy it will be for those students when they graduate.
One thing we’ve had a lot of demand for is training corporate sustainability officers. This is for people who already have jobs, and want to add this to their resume. White-collar, mid-career professionals, mostly. My guess is that a lot of the corporate officers out there right now don’t have a lot of training in terms of sustainability, and it would be good to see more of that: not very many schools are taking on this life-long education side.
CE: What do you think continuing education will look like?
JA: I think we need to understand that a lot of the action here will ultimately be with people who already have jobs: electricians and so forth. In the long-term, a lot of these folks will gravitate towards new, cleaner technologies. For example, a smart grid may very well transform the way linemen do their jobs, and they’ll have to be trained for that, just like with any new technology.
CE: Do you think the “wait and see” mood is primarily due to economic factors?
JA: The macroeconomic scene changes everything: higher education usually runs behind the rest of the economy, sometimes as much as a year. At Johnson CCC, we may have to take a 20 percent overall budget cut in the next three years. But my sense is that in the next year there will be some kind of meaningful climate legislation, and at community colleges we have to be observant of our local economies and be ready to respond when the time is right.
Dr. Jay Antle is Executive Director of the Johnson County Community College Center for Sustainability. He comes to sustainability issues from the field of history and earned a Ph.D. in American Environmental History from the University of Kansas.