Community Colleges at Texas Greenforce Summit: “Think Local”

At the “Preparing the Texas Workforce for the New Green Economy” Summit  this past week, one of the issues of concern discussed was how community colleges can engage green employers both for campus sustainability projects and to develop jobs for graduates — an undertaking that can prove challenging.

Luzelma Canales, Interim Associate Dean Community Engagement & Workforce Development, South Texas College // Photo by Julian Keniry // All Rights Reserved.
Luzelma Canales, Interim Associate Dean Community Engagement & Workforce Development, South Texas College and Praween Dayananda of the NWF Campus Ecology team

People underestimate deep south Texas,” explained Luzelma G. Canales, one of the key leaders of the summit, and interim Associate Dean of Community Engagement & Workforce Development at South Texas College. “[They] assume that we are not doing things that are newsworthy or noteworthy, but actually we are involved with some really cutting-edge initiatives, and we have a lot to offer.”

Anson Green, Director of the Mission Verde Center and member of the San Antonio Mayor’s Green Jobs Task Force, said that one of the ways to solve this issue is to focus on the companies that are already in the local area, rather than courting outside “green” companies.  Texas HVAC, electric, and home building companies have jobs that are not exportable, and though they may not be specifically “green” yet, these are industries rapidly changing, with environmental concerns and energy efficiency mandates driving much of that change. They need trained workers who understand new green technologies to replace retiring tradesmen and infuse these industries with the knowledge and skills to keep them competitive in the evolving marketplace.

The catch is that training workers for jobs that don’t exist yet can be risky. For example, consider the dilemma of training students to work in wind power technologies when there are few companies building turbines in the area. On the one hand, colleges have the opportunity to help introduce green technologies to employers in the form of a workforce familiar with the technologies required. On the other hand, the demand for workers with those skills is not high yet — in large part because consumer demand is low, because companies aren’t offering the products, because they don’t have any workers who know how to implement them. It can feel like a Catch-22 for everyone involved.

“The bottom line,” said Anson, “is the skilled workforce.  If we don’t provide the skills, companies don’t locate here; if they don’t locate here, it is hard for us to provide the training.” The key is building relationships with potential employers so that they learn the benefits of adopting new green technolgies.

Companies will only go where they see the training happening or the pipeline created.  Already several of the colleges report recieving regular inquiries from Mexican small business investors who want to invest in green business in Texas. There is also a lot of potential for opportunities with  the millitary in the region. Community colleges, then, must continue along a two-pronged approach: training students for the jobs that they want to see come to the area, and engaging the existing employers to provide opportunities to showcase the skills that will bring the jobs home.

(article based on notes taken by Julian Keniry reporting live from the “Preparing the Texas Workforce for the New Green Economy” Summit.)