Community Colleges Step Up to Train Clean Energy Workers

(Ed. Note: portions of this article were originally published at WorldChanging)

As unemployment numbers continue to creep up and universities make ever more draconian budget cuts, it may be surprising to learn that even in a recession, the demand for trained workers in clean energy fields is rising. In some regions, the need for trained technicians in solar, wind, and other renewables is fast outstripping supply.

And these workers have to come from somewhere.

The National Council for Workforce Education, in a recent report with the Academy for Educational Development, argues that community colleges are an ideal place to offer green-collar training, since existing vocational programs can be modified, rather than starting from scratch: “It is expected that the majority [of new, green jobs] will be transformed from existing jobs, requiring a redefinition of skill sets, methods, and occupational profiles.”

The report, titled Going Green: The Vital Role of Community Colleges in Building a Sustainable Future and Green Workforce (PDF), also notes that the jobs that are predicted to be in highest demand are ‘middle-skilled,’ requiring education beyond high school but no bachelor’s degree. Community college programs in energy efficiency, renewable energy and grid management fit well into this niche, and courses already exist in many states.

Getting Workers into the Field

Direct workforce training, to be useful, requires collaboration between schools and local employers. Vocational students need to know they can move immediately into a career upon graduation, unlike many liberal arts undergraduates who intend to earn further degrees. And since jobs in green technology are still emerging, open communication is even more integral to the process.

Edith Westfall, a consultant for the Center for Workforce Strategies at the Community College Initiative of University of DC (UDC), says that her job is to listen to local businesses and figure out what they need. Her position is funded by the DC Workforce Investment Board (WIB), one of almost 650 WIBs in the nation which work with local businesses to assess opportunity and provide training for workers.

Westfall says, “When I see that United Medical Center needs to fill 250 jobs over the next year, I talk to them and ask them what they need, what kinds of jobs they have to fill, is it something we can train for, and how fast can we do that?”

As the demand for cleaner technology grows, such centers are finding new avenues for workers, aided by stimulus-package funding from the Department of Labor. Recently, the Center for Workforce Strategies at UDC has run a pilot program to train solar installers (at the request of a local utility), added material on energy efficiency to existing HVAC classes, created a low-impact landscape development training, and started planning coursework on health informatics systems, which get people’s medical records into online databases that give their doctors better access and reduce paper waste and redundancy.

Westfall notes that the definition of green can be broad, and doesn’t require reinventing the wheel. “For a lot of jobs and training programs, making them green is a framing issue,” she says. “We’re usually not creating entirely new curricula, but updating it for new processes and technologies. For example, for the hospitality curriculum, we add in modules about green in hotels (replacing sheets and hotels at guests’ request versus automatically every day) and why it’s important.”

Share and Share Alike

A joint project of San Francisco Bay community colleges called the New Energy Workforce (NEW) Initiative has found that it helps to work closely with other schools, by sharing research responsibilities and training resources.

Working with their own local WIBs, Centers of Excellence hosted at City College of San Francisco and West Valley College conducted a study in 2008 on Bay Area solar sectors, finding that there was a growing demand for photovoltaic panel installers, solar thermal installers, and professionals in photovoltaic sales and marketing. Some fields, like photovoltaic installation, were projected to grow as much as 56 percent in the next 12 months.

“When we saw the need [for PV solar technicians], we turned our attention to it immediately,” says Kitty O’Doherty, convener of the NEW Initiative. “DeAnza College led the way in securing a grant to fund the effort; Cabrillo and San Jose City Colleges capitalized on existing infrastructure to quickly develop and offer new courses; faculty at Diablo Valley College hosted a train-the-trainer event to jumpstart both the Cabrillo and San Jose City College courses as well as five others in the region. We can be fast at figuring out which colleges are best positioned for each need; work to meet it; and all the while ensure we don’t over-saturate the market.”

The result of this collaboration is a more efficient system, with coordinated courses in clean technology and a system of “Train-the-Trainer” courses for instructors at other schools.

Looking Under the Couch Cushions

Obstacles exist, of course. Money is tight, and curriculum projects aren’t always cheap.

Kitty O’Doherty says, “Right now we’re trying to get grants for some solar panels, to provide hands-on training. It’s necessary, especially if you’re talking about adult learners, so they can retain and use information.”

Some schools have gotten around the need for equipment by partnering with utilities to share the cost burden. In this arrangement, a wind farm would offer time on their equipment to a local school, guaranteeing a supply of trained techs in the area.

But even if you have the equipment, you need a place to put it. Columbia Gorge Community College (CGCC), in The Dalles, OR, received a donated wind turbine hub from Vestas Wind Systems, but since the lab to keep it in remains unfinished, the school has been forced to keep the hub in storage, far away from student’s hands.

Dan Spatz, CGCC’s resource development director, hopes more state aid will come soon, especially since the school runs the only certified wind technician training program in the West, and has a strong relationship with Vestas that offers job security to its graduates.

Colleges expect it to be at least another two years before they are able to recover. Jay Antle, sustainability committee chair at Johnson County Community College, says that his school has lost $8 million out of its operating budget for next year, and that no one is holding their breath for the year after that.

“People are still going to be losing jobs until sometime next year, which means homeownership is down, which changes property values, and then diminishes the taxes that end up going to fund community colleges. So everyone loses. And then it takes a while for that money to start flowing again,” says Antle.

Making It Work

It helps that in regions with available energy from wind, solar and geothermal sources, the need for trained technicians in renewable energy is on the rise, even in a recession. Oregon Live reports that by 2010, 106 technicians will graduate from Columbia Gorge Community College, but that is not enough to meet the estimated need for 500-600 trained technicians by 2011.

Antle, who tracks opportunities in his region, says a new Siemens plant in Hutchinson, Kansas, will hire about 400 workers to manufacture wind turbines. “What’s changed is that there is obvious momentum in the news and in the funding stream,” he says. “It’s giving community colleges the opportunity to move more aggressively. There’s a pretty impressive amount of money in the short term, and hopefully in the long term.”

Several new laws have promised funding to community colleges for sustainability initiatives and training. The Higher Education Sustainability Act passed in August 2008, authorizing $50 million to schools, and the stimulus package included about $75 billion with implications for the higher education sector in areas like campus renovations, student loans, federal work-study programs, technology and climate research. Of that, another $4 billion was earmarked for job training, and $500 million was allocated to the Department of Labor for green jobs education and training.

There may be more in the future. The Waxman energy bill, also known as the American Clean Energy and Security Act, is hotly contested and still in committee, but if it reaches the floor for votes, will likely include funding for green workforce training. A Community College Sustainability Act, which would offer grants for workforce training, has also been presented, but doesn’t look to be going anywhere fast.

Still, Antle is optimistic about the future. “When the economy picks up, that’s really gonna set the powder keg off,” he says. “Half the projects out there are on hold, because no one has any capital to lend right now. Once that money reappears, I think it’s going to shock us all how fast things start happening.”

Published: May 12, 2009