Department of Labor Distributes Money for Green Workforce Training

President Barack Obama
President Obama encourages students at Lorain County Community College. (LCCC/Jason Miller)
As further proof that community colleges have a big role to play in building capacity for green business and technology, 17 out of the 25 recipients of job training grants, awarded this month from the Department of Labor (DOL), list at least one community, vocational, or four-year school as a partner on their projects.

The Department of Labor, which is distributing $500 million of the stimulus package funds to various workforce projects in green fields, announced in January that a fifth of that money, split into chunks of $1.5 – 5 million, would go towards energy training partnerships. A key factor in the selection was collaboration: all recipients have at least half a dozen partners among local nonprofits, schools, employers, and workforce investment boards.

Bringing so many different groups together increases the odds of success, says Patrick McGuigan, executive director of The Providence Plan. His organization matches employers with apprentice training programs and the Community College of Rhode Island to help low- or unskilled workers earn the credentials necessary to work in energy-related fields.

It’s important to understand the needs of local firms, says McGuigan: “We have major employers here at Brown University, at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, who are moving forward to break ground on projects this spring. Increasingly, they’re committed to LEED-certified buildings, green technology, and they like that we’re creating a community-labor partnership that incorporates a new group of people.”

Even with the best information, however, there is a risk that more students will graduate than the market can accommodate, especially in a recession. McGuigan says, “It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. There’s a dynamic where we might worry we’re training people for jobs we can’t promise exist, but on the other hand, new technology can’t grow without having qualified workers.”

Patricia Meeks, executive director of grants & compliance at Memphis Bioworks Foundation, which received a grant for almost $3 million, isn’t worried. “The collaboration is a significant piece of this grant.We’ve got about ten employers that are making solid projections on what they need. For example, we know of some solar projects that have been approved, and will need workers very soon.”

The Memphis Bioworks Foundation will be working with four community colleges to expand training programs for solar installation, biomass production, and sustainable design and construction in Arkansas and western Tennessee. Meeks says, “MidSouth Community college is the mentor in this group. They have received several Department of Labor grants before this, and have developed a model curriculum that they will be sharing with the other schools.” This curriculum will then be modified for the needs in each area. In western Tennessee and eastern Arkansas, that means a focus on biofuels and agriculture in addition to energy.

President Obama at Lorain Community College
The president describes initiatives that are intended to give rise to a clean energy economy. (LCCC/Jason Miller)
But employers’ needs aren’t the only ones at play here. Regina Whitley, vice-president of marketing for the Memphis Bioworks Foundation, says that these jobs are intended to help dislocated or laid-off workers get job security and long-term access to employment. “These colleges are going to provide one-year, two-year degrees that are post-secondary. The training will help people attain skilled jobs that pay a living wage, a family-supporting income. ”

Like much of the stimulus funding, these grants are intended for immediate use, to get workers ready for employment as soon as possible. However, recipients hope they are the first step towards long-term economic revitalization and sustainable energy frameworks. Meeks, who imagines a pipeline for students leading from 18-month certificate programs to associate degrees to four-year colleges, calls this grant “Stage 1.”

Last week, speaking at Lorain County Community College in Elyria, OH, President Barack Obama encouraged students to educate themselves for new technologies. He had visited EMC Precision Manufacturing earlier in the day, and noted that stimulus funds made it possible for some of EMC’s workers to enroll in an intensive 6-month program after being laid off from other companies. Noting that federal funding was in part intended to help students like them, he said, “If you’re willing to take some tough and painful steps to make yourself more competitive, we’re willing to invest in your future.”