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Training the Green Collar Workforce: A Role for 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

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I think that community colleges will play a huge part in retraining but I think even more than that many technical colleges where you can get the training in 6 months to a year will be the most popular way of retaining.

Posted by: Brennan on 17 Mar 09

"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. "
Doesn't this hint at the inefficiency of the alternative fuels industry? I assume such an excess of manpower could be a contributing factor in the higher cost of these forms of energy, thus not making them readily available for all to enjoy, without a large amount of disposable income. Last time I checked, there aren't enough Americans with enough income to sustain such inefficiency without some sort of backlash. Is the point of this article to advocate an overly-populated, wage-subsidised beast of an industry that produces exponetially less than the present (hated) industry?
Believe me, I am all for job creation, community college-grad or otherwise. However, why try to overload an industry that seems to be a pet project for people that want to brag about how green they are while still committing the usual market-driven atrocities of owning large SUV's, boats/yatchs, etc.?

Posted by: Brad on 18 Mar 09

You're right that tech/vocational colleges will also play a role, but I haven't heard as much buzz from them yet. Have you seen such projects? Please pass them along if you do, that might be a good topic for a future article.

The statistics above do more than hint at inefficiency: they blatantly describe it. However, in the short-term, this many not be the demon we usually think it is. Aside from its value in employing people, this inefficiency is also the hallmark of a relatively new technology. And all technologies change. I’m not an expert in wind generation, but it seems likely that as we become more reliant on wind power, it will become more labor-efficient as a matter of course with new models, better transmission, and more reliable supply lines. That's a topic for another story entirely: the point of this one was to highlight some interesting job training programs that are meeting a growing need.

I should also point out that as a carbon cap-and-trade program seems more and more likely with the current administration, dirty energy will become more expensive and burdensome, which will eventually impact consumers. In that scenario, wind power might end up with lower net costs to consumers, even if the percentage that goes to salaries is higher. I'm speculating, of course, but it seems possible. I hope there are some economists ready and waiting to calculate this sort of thing once Obama presents climate legislation.

Posted by: Xarissa Holdaway on 19 Mar 09

Brad -- very good question. And Xarissa's response is a smart one. Also, remember that labor and efficiency are not the same thing: one person driving a multimillion-dollar huge bulldozer, stripping off the top of a mountain, may generate more energy per worker, but that doesn't mean that operation is more efficient in terms of either energy ROI (how much energy it takes to get energy) or cost (especially since someone else in the future will pay for the damage to that mountain and our climate).

Posted by: Julia on 19 Mar 09

Community colleges are a wonderful resource - accessible, affordable and flexible in their offerings. I'm glad to see that they are moving quickly to provide training for green economy jobs (and retraining to enable to transition out of polluting industries.)

I would like to add one point in response to Brad on the issue of efficiency. The comparison of wind industry jobs to coal mining is useful in looking at net job loss/gain in a green economy as people often express concern about what will happen to coal miners. But coal mining is about the fuel and with wind power fuel is free. The linked Fortune article with the quoted numbers points out that about 1/6 of the wind industry jobs are in manufacturing - which provides the capacity to produce future wind power generation as well as installed sites. A better comparison would have been to compare coal/fossil fuel and wind based on employment in component manufacturing and construction and maintenance of electricity generating facilities.

Posted by: Laurie Dougherty on 19 Mar 09

Community colleges can generally respond quickly to training needs, and have the capacity to offer short term intensive training. Each program utilizes an advisory committee to stay abreast of trends and workforce need. Economic and workforce development is part of our mission, and we can offer degree applicable courses and programs, as well as contract education that can be customized for a particular company. We are the training provider of choice for 4 year college graduates who need job skills, and our low costs and noncompetitive admission policies make us accessible to people who otherwise could not attend college.

Posted by: Kathy Werle on 19 Mar 09

Community colleges are an excellent source for training because they usually can respond quickly to changing needs. Let's also not forget union apprenticeship programs which are embracing green building practices. These programs lead to good paying jobs, and apprentices get paid while training. Organizations like the Blue Green Alliance and the Apollo Alliance include partnerships among labor unions, environmentalists, environmental justice groups and more to promote programs that reduce global warming and our dependency on fossil fuels.

Posted by: Paul Shatsoff on 25 Mar 09

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