Graduating in Green: Community Colleges are Making Students Marketable


December 1, 2009

In the midst of record joblessness, workers from all sectors are reassessing their skills and seeking new opportunities to better their situations, and many are finding their paths leading them through the doors of their local community colleges. These highly-skilled workers are finding new value in augmenting their skill sets with a little green flair.

Community colleges across the country are showing green-minded employers that their schools’ curriculum is highly adaptable and their training methods are efficient, which means students are ready to hit the ground running in the ever-expanding green market. From solar PV system installations to smart grid development, community colleges are creating certificates and associate degrees in areas where skilled workers are in high demand.

Earlier this year, the National Wildlife Federation reported on how community colleges are stepping up to train workers in clean energy technologies. At that time, a controversial bill, the American Clean Energy and Security Act, was in committee. That bill narrowly passed the House (219-212) and has now been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar. If passed and signed into law, it could bolster funding for green workforce training by authorizing $500 million to be granted to community colleges over five years, with preference given to schools with strong programs already in place.

Even without those funds in place, a few schools have found other avenues to explore for financial support. Portland Community College (PCC) received nearly $700,000 from the National Science Foundation to bring real-world experiences in green technologies back into the classroom. PCC’s project is called Sustainability Training for Technical Educators and contains three primary components.

The first is to provide release time for faculty to return to industry and find out what are the latest technology trends in renewable energies. “Then they can bring that information back to the classroom and alter their curriculum,” explains Dr. Todd Sanders, principal investigator for the project and engineering faculty member at PCC.

The second part consists of a summer training institute, where regional high school, community college and university faculty receive a five-day training course in the latest trends in sustainable technologies. “We also help them alter their curriculum,” says Dr. Sanders, “so they can bring it back to their institution.”

The final component of the PCC project is the dissemination of information through the project’s Web site, which includes examples of altered curriculum and resources for those who want to make changes in their own programs.

“Our institute is directly related to the built environment,” explains Dr. Sanders. “Our focus is on building construction, architecture and facilities maintenance, and we’ll soon be adding building code inspection and landscaping technology.”

Energy efficiency in buildings and construction has been cited by several sources as one of the areas with the greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gases, while simultaneously creating a significant amount of jobs. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, residential, commercial, and public buildings account for 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and consume 72 percent of the nation’s energy.

Five of the 12 selected PCC faculty members have already been placed in internships with area businesses as part of the NSF-funded project, landing with institutions such as Portland Energy Conservation, Inc. (PECI). PECI was listed this year in the Oregon Business Magazine’s inaugural list of the 100 Best Green Companies to Work For in Oregon.

“And groups like Vestas and Solar World, and others, are working with us,” says Dr. Sanders, “to create the curriculum and the direction where they will find our students employable in their programs. All the industries are providing [our students] hands-on opportunities [for training].”

“The way it works in the community college,” Dr. Sanders continues, “is that we don’t just come up with an idea and throw it out there. We are responsive to industry needs. And contrary to the past, the new paradigm amongst almost all community colleges in the nation is to be flexible, to adapt quickly and to address needs expediently.”

Someone who clearly shares Dr. Sanders’ vision of community colleges is Dr. Dennis Ulrich, executive director of the Workforce Development Center (WDC) at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College.

“The beauty of the community college is we’re close to the people and we’re agile in developing programming and training,” says Dr. Ulrich. “Our primary goal is to up-skill workers.”

One of the four areas of education Dr. Ulrich oversees in the WDC is Industrial Maintenance, which is where most of the green workforce training takes place.

“The jury’s out a little on what’s a green job,” suggests Dr. Ulrich. For example, many electricians are coming through the WDC to receive training in Solar PV Installation because workers need to be certified to do that work. But does that turn an electrician’s job into a “green job”?

The WDC sees six to seven thousand students graduate each year, but not all of them in the green sector. Although, “our enrollment is up by 40 percent in this last term because of the jobless rate,” says Dr. Ulrich, “and one of the primary areas [of interest] is the green industry.”

The WDC is showing its flexibility and interest in building a green workforce by being at the forefront in developing a major in “smart-grid” technologies. Currently, the WDC is in communication with Duke Energy, Inc., which won a $200 million “smart-grid” grant in October. The grant was a stimulus award for “smart-grid” improvements specifically for Ohio and Indiana.

Duke Energy is the third-largest electric power holding company in the United States and expects to spend at least half of the $200 million grant in the Cincinnati area, installing its next generation of smart electricity meters in over 700,000 homes and smart natural gas meters in 450,000 homes.

The Electric Power Research Institute estimates that “smart-grid” improvements could reduce national energy usage by 4 percent by 2030, saving roughly $20.4 billion nationwide.

Only a couple states away, Heartland Community College in Illinois sits among a proverbial “grid” of community colleges that all share a dedication to rapidly accelerate training and development of the green collar workforce.

“Heartland was one of the founding colleges of the Illinois Community College Sustainability Network (ICCSN),” says Julie Elzanati, coordinator of the Green Institute at Heartland.

The ICCSN is a consortium of all 48 Illinois community colleges, which is built partly on the idea of eliminating the need for each college to build its own resources and curriculum from the ground up.

“Not all community colleges compete with each other,” says Elzanati, “so we can collaborate with each other.”

On its own, however, Heartland has many “firsts” under its belt. “We were one of the first small communities in the nation to partner with the U.S. Green Building Council to offer national LEED certification training,” says Elzanati.

In October, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association was awarded a $3.3 million solar market transformation grant from the Department of Energy to train solar instructors. Heartland is one of only seven institutions (and the only in Illinois) selected to train these instructors, who, in turn, will train solar installers.

“Our partnership [with MREA] states that we’ll provide the instructors,” explains Elzanati, “and we’ll pull those from community colleges around the state. Those instructors who are selected agree to write curriculum that will be shared throughout the region. Furthermore, the colleges from which we pull these instructors will have to agree to offer opportunities for these instructors to teach the local workforce through workshops.”

Elzanati notes that currently most of the solar instructors available for training trainers come from Wisconsin, “so it’s hard for them to get all around [the Midwest].”

In a state often noted for its work on wind energy is the Red Rocks Community College (RRCC) in Colorado, and Larry Snyder, lead faculty at RRCC, is about to see some of the first graduates come out of his renewable energy program next spring.

“In Colorado,” says Snyder, “we have some large wind turbines that are three or four hundred feet high, and we’re training the work force to maintain those units.”

Whereas many community colleges are partnering heavily with leading sustainable energy technologies manufacturers in order to have jobs waiting for their graduates when the coursework is finished, RRCC takes a slightly different approach.

“We’re trying to create a generic type of training,” says Snyder, “where the students would not be limited to one particular manufacturer. However, both Clipper and Vestas have expressed a fair amount of interest in us. But we don’t want the students to be exclusive to where we’re training just for those manufacturers.”

Students do most of their hands-on turbine work on Enron Wind Systems (which is owned by General Electric, Inc.), and currently RRCC is having discussions with Enron about receiving a donated wind turbine for their campus and classroom use.

And when it comes to jobs, the Renewable Energy Policy Project has figured that for every 1,000 MW of wind power developed, there is a potential for 3,000 jobs in manufacturing, 700 jobs in installation, and 600 in operations and maintenance.

It wasn’t until January 2008 that RRCC really put together an accredited college program in renewable energies, and today RRCC has the only fully credited associate’s degree in the state of Colorado in Renewable Energy Technologies. RRCC will realize its first class of graduates in this program next spring.

In a less direct approach to sustainable energy, RRCC has also received a grant from the National Science Foundation like Portland Community College. However, RRCC’s grant is for a very unique curriculum change, which started this fall semester.

“We have a grant to incorporate the ‘renewable lifestyle’,” Snyder says, “and renewable ideas into all our curriculum throughout the entire college. English classes, math classes and economics classes will be developing curriculum to support renewable ideas. I think getting it throughout the entire curriculum increases a lot of awareness, even if you’re not a renewable energy ‘geek’. It’s part of a lifestyle change.”

With successful examples of adaptability, ingenuity and the power of listening to people’s needs, community colleges are giving many students hope that there is a job market out there waiting to be tapped. And should any federal grants find their way through the doors of a community college, it may just be icing on the cake for the schools that have forged strong working relations with leading manufacturers in renewable energies. Regardless, students are gaining new skills and showing increased interest and awareness in green technologies across the board.

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Published: December 1, 2009