U.S. Community Colleges Are Ready to Train Green Work Force

April 16, 2009
Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, is home to the Northwest Energy Education Institute, which offers courses and degrees in renewable energy technology, water conservation and energy management.

Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, is home to the Northwest Energy Education Institute, which offers courses and degrees in renewable energy technology, water conservation and energy management.

While training students for future work in alternative-energy industries, Lane Community College also operates its campus in a way that strives to do no harm to the environment and to preserve scarce resources. Lane has begun to help other community colleges develop similar programs and practices, making it a leader in promoting environmental stewardship.

While “green jobs” has become a rallying cry for activists and politicians, it is a governing principle at Lane.

It looks like a smart business strategy too. The U.S. government’s recently enacted economic stimulus bill includes more than $100 billion for renewable energy, home weatherization, energy efficiency and power-grid upgrades. Projects financed through the bill’s grants and loan guarantees are expected to create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Analysts believe there will not be enough people with the right skills to accomplish the goals of this new investment. A U.N. report says that a shortage of trained “green collar” workers across the world may be the biggest obstacle to renewable-energy and energy-efficiency growth. A February survey conducted by the U.S. Association of Energy Engineers indicates there will be a shortage of qualified professionals in the energy-efficiency and renewable-energy fields in the next five years. Respondents called for national and state training programs to address the potential shortfall.

A recent report by the Academy for Education Development (AED) makes the case for community colleges to train the work force for a greening economy. “We have an economy in crisis. Thousands of workers are being laid off who need to upgrade their skills or be retrained,” said AED’s Mindy Feldbaum, who authored the report with the National Council for Workforce Education.

Feldbaum said community colleges are prepared to provide the type of training required by the government’s new green investment. These public educational institutions offer one-year certificate programs, two-year associate degrees and shorter-term certificate and noncertificate programs.

“They’re kind of a unique institution in the sense that they have very strong labor-market connections and they’re very flexible in the sense that they can respond to emerging industries and employers’ changing skill needs,” Feldbaum said. Community colleges also are accessible and affordable for workers who have different levels of education.

Feldbaum said community colleges have been providing their students with skills for energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects for some time already.

The phrase “green jobs” brings to mind wind power installers and maintenance workers, solar engineers and designers, architects, ethanol plant technicians, biodiesel lab technicians, and air-quality auditors. But green workers could also include those who propose or implement conservation ideas to save energy or water, reduce pollution or restore biodiversity and ecosystems.

As part of the global transition to a more sustainable economy, some jobs will be created and some lost, but many will simply be transformed. “Green is going to be incorporated in every industry,” Feldbaum said.

She agrees with those who say it is difficult to define what a green industry is. For example, making wind turbines is a job not much different from other kinds of manufacturing. “But I do think green skills will be integrated into everything we do, and sustainability principles will eventually be in every occupation,” she said.

Feldbaum said community colleges like Lane that have been involved in sustainability efforts and green work force training for a long time are great places for international students to consider. “It would also be good to have sharing of practices,” she said. U.S. community colleges would be open to partnering with and helping institutions of higher education in other countries to come up with their own green training programs.

--Jeffrey Thomas

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