An Associate’s Degree in Green

NWF   |   April 6, 2009

One of the first sessions at this year’s Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference gave community colleges a starring role in preparing students for jobs in a greener economy.

Keith Ratcliff of the Central Piedmont Community College Center for Sustainability began by asking, “Don’t we want our students to learn a skill, to be able to get a job? My son is in college now, and when I ask the school what kind of job he’s going to be able to get, how much money he might make, they don’t have any idea. Think about it, they don’t know what my son’s job prospects will be.”

In the next ten years, Ratcliff said, 75% of American jobs will require a two-year degree. This fits with other studies that claim much of the projected demand in green-collar jobs will be in middle-skilled occupations: those that require some education beyond high school, but not a Bachelor’s degree.

The fact that community colleges fit right in this spot, said Ratcliff, is an untapped opportunity. “People are so interested in this issue. After a talk I gave to a bunch of sales and marketing people, many of whom were losing their jobs, they were so excited that they came down to campus and signed up for our training program,” he said. “I’m not making that up.”

Central Piedmont Community College has indeed seen a hike in applicants for the new Associate’s degree program in sustainable technology, which offers students the choice of an emphasis in alternative energy, environmental engineering, sustainable manufacturing, or green building.

Most importantly, said Ratcliff, schools shouldn’t train people for jobs that don’t exist. “When we were launching this program, what I had to do was call over 130 companies, find the right person, tell them about the program, and ask if they would have a need for these students in two years. And these companies told us that they could see that need coming up.” (A recent WorldChanging article shows how some schools have partnered with local workforce boards to do similar research on green employment opportunities.)

The greatest demands in North Carolina, where CPCC is located, are expected to be in research and development, biotech, manufacturing of clean energy components and equipment, clean energy distribution, and construction and maintenance, many of which can be embedded into existing programs at community colleges.

“A green engineer or green architect can be trained within the program that already exists, with a few changes,” finished Ratcliff. “You don’t start from ground zero—a person is already an engineer, or a plumber, or an electrician.”

We’re blogging the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference at University of Maryland today and tomorrow. If you were in any of the sessions, share your notes in the comments.

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Published: April 6, 2009