Green Jobs Training at Community Colleges

communitycolleges_greenjobs.jpgBy Xarissa Holdaway

President Obama’s appointment of Van Jones’s as Green Jobs Adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality seems startlingly à propos, especially on the heels of Power Shift ’09, — a major youth campaign which demanded, among other things, green jobs. In light of federally funded job-creation initiatives, a rumored shift in the U.S. economy as a whole, and louder-than-ever support for new green infrastructure, the timing couldn’t be better for paying more attention to how a green economy really works.

Political support is only the beginning. A key issue will be sourcing the workers that can produce and manage clean energy. Many fields require more boots on the ground per kWh than fossil energy sources. For example, in 2008 the number of workers employed in the US wind industry jumped to 85,000, surpassing the 81,000 currently needed to mine coal, even though wind power currently provides only a fraction of the electricity in the US that coal does. According to this University of Massachusetts study, (PDF) investing in projects such as wind power and mass transit creates three to four times more jobs than the same spending directed towards the coal industry.

And training these workers is more complicated than pointing Joe the Plumber towards a solar water heater. The National Council for Workforce Education, in a recent report with the Academy for Educational Development titled Going Green: The Vital Role of Community Colleges in Building a Sustainable Future and Green Workforce (PDF), points out:

[M]any jobs that are currently, or predicted to be, in demand are ‘middle-skilled’ jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. It is important to note that although there will be a growing number of new green occupations requiring new knowledge, skills, and abilities, it is expected that the majority will be transformed from existing jobs, requiring a redefinition of skill sets, methods, and occupational profiles.

The report goes on to say that community colleges are an ideal place to begin offering such training, since existing vocational programs can be modified, rather than starting from scratch. Fast-growing fields such as energy efficiency, renewable energy and alternative fuels are particularly unable to wait for the development of entirely new programs. Courses already exist at several US schools, including Santa Fe Community College, Great Basin College, Cuyahoga Community College, Central Carolina Community College, and Lansing Community College.

“Community colleges fill a very different role than the other higher education institutions,” says Jay Antle, Sustainability Committee Chair at Johnson County Community College. “The real difference is that the research institutions are inventing and perfecting the technology that community college-trained workers will install and service.”

So, where will the money to fund these training programs come from? As much as $75 billion of the new stimulus bill has implications for the higher education sector, in areas like campus renovations, student loans, federal work-study programs, technology and climate research. Four billion is earmarked for job training. Another $500 million was allocated to the Department of Labor for green jobs education and training, though none of it was set aside specifically for community colleges (though it looks like the DOL may end up granting some to those who apply).

In order to make the most of the limited funds, community colleges are finding creative opportunities to collaborate. A joint project of San Francisco Bay community colleges called the New Energy Workforce (NEW) Initiative has found that cooperation with local workforce boards and each other increases their ability to respond to trends in clean and green technology. In concert, they are launching coordinated courses in photovoltaics and energy management, expanding offerings in renewable energy, and providing “Train-the-Trainer” courses for instructors at other schools.

Department of Labor resources will primarily be coming through local Workforce Investment Boards (WIB), says Kitty O’Doherty, convener of the NEW Initiative. “There are roughly 13 WIBs in our region, and they oversee the operation of one-stop career centers, using Department of Labor funds to provide a variety of career services, including job training, to unemployed and recently laid off adults as well as youth.”

As community colleges coordinate with the local workforce boards, they are better able to predict local employment opportunities. Available energy from wind, solar and geothermal sources varies according to location, and regional networks are more likely to have connections to area employers and estimate training needs.

For example, 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. It was the perfect place for the NEW Initiative to step in.

“When we saw the need [for PV solar technicians], we turned our attention to it immediately,” says O’Doherty. “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; seasoned 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.”

She goes on: “This is a call for new levels of collaboration. We convened the Workforce Investment Boards and the colleges in our region in February, and both groups are extremely committed. They [WIBs] are going to have the funding to place people in these jobs, and we’re going to have the training. The common mission of preparing individuals for meaningful careers and creating a well-qualified workforce for our region is a very compelling motivator.”

Xarissa Holdaway blogs for the Campus Ecology program at National Wildlife Federation and edits ClimateEdu, an email newsletter for colleges and universities.

Photo: Lindsay Randall, Environmental Sustinability Coordinator at Purchase College, advocates for green jobs at the Capitol during PowerShift ’09.
Photo credit: Xarissa Holdaway