COVER STORY: A Green Collision
Lane Community College was green long before “going green” became a catch phrase for an emerging ethic of renewable energy and resource conservation ranging from installing insulation in drafty old buildings to building and maintaining towering wind turbines that produce electric power.
Community colleges are teaching students how to maintain power-generating windmills, but jobs have been slow to materialize.
Lane has become a national leader in green energy education. This fall, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, the college’s award-winning curriculum will be available to colleges across the country through distance learning.
“We are partnering with colleges who will put together a cohort of students who will come together to do the laboratory piece of the programs,” said Roger Ebbage, coordinator of Lane’s Energy Management Program. “We are going to bring the staff of the partner colleges together, to teach them how to teach the program.”
But even as colleges look to Lane for leadership and devise and expand their own green energy programs, a new report is raising questions about whether the reality of green energy jobs, and all that training at community colleges, is falling short of its promise.
“Building Effective Green Energy Programs at Community Colleges,” issued earlier this month by the Workforce Strategy Center, suggests that the long-term promise of a green energy economy is colliding with short-term reality of a stubborn economic downturn.
“This is a reality check,” said Julian Alssid, executive director of the center. “The promise of green jobs is there. But right now, the jobs aren’t there, and many of the ones that exist are out of the reach of low-income people.”
To be sure, the country has made a substantial investment in promoting green energy, initiatives that have taken on added importance as oil from the ruptured Deepwater Horizon well spews into the Gulf of Mexico and fouls wetlands along the Louisiana coastline.
President Obama, in an address to the country from the Oval office, echoed what Carter said in 1979, calling for the country to move away from its dependence on oil to prevent similar spills in the future.
“Oil is a finite resource,” Obama said. “We consume more than 20 percent of the world’s oil, but have less than two percent of the world’s oil reserves. And that’s part of the reason oil companies are drilling a mile beneath the surface of the ocean — because we’re running out of places to drill on land and in shallow water.”
Noting that other countries — such as China — already are investing in renewable energy, Obama stated that the “tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now.”
“The transition away from fossil fuels is going to take some time, but over the last year and a half, we’ve already taken unprecedented action to jump-start the clean energy industry,” he continued. “As we speak, old factories are reopening to produce wind turbines, people are going back to work installing energy-efficient windows, and small businesses are making solar panels.”
As part of the $787 billion economic stimulus program enacted last year, Congress approved $45 billion for new investments in green energy, including $5 billion to retrofit the homes of low-income people. Of that sum, $1 billion can be spent on training and technical assistance programs.
“The Obama administration clearly wants to support this sector,” said Peter Crabtree, dean of the Career & Technical Division at Laney College in Oakland, Calif.
Forecasts call for robust job growth in green employment. According to Booz Allen Hamilton, green construction will support as many as 7.9 million jobs by the year 2013.
Amid those promising forecasts, green energy programs have sprouted up on community college campuses across the country. The colleges are well-situated for the task because of their accessibility, low tuition and proven ability to quickly develop training programs, particularly for low-income and disadvantaged populations.
But colleges are encountering significant obstacles as they develop their green programs, according to the WSC report.
“Amidst all the excitement and funding,” the report says, “even those colleges that have been on the forefront of green energy education have been struggling to build green workforce development programs as a result of three factors: 1) the state of the U.S. economy; 2) the emerging nature of the green sector economy; 3) the focus placed by the federal government on educating low-income and low-skilled individuals for this emerging sector in it’s training grants.
“Identifying green energy jobs for individuals with entry-level skills has been a significant problem. In fact, the projections for green growth have not yet translated into a sizable number of jobs. As of now, there also appears to be only marginal demand within green energy sectors for lower-skilled workers. Moreover, green energy sector credentials are inconsistent across the industry and among employers.”
Said Alssid: “Devising training programs is proving to be much more difficult than anyone realized. What we are seeing is the difficulty of addressing the needs of an industry that is brand new.”
The WSC report outlines several hurdles community colleges face in developing effective training and education programs that lead to good-paying jobs. Among them:
The green energy field is so new that it is difficult to forecast employment needs.
“The demand for training in the green energy sector in its current state differs significantly from other sectors that community colleges serve. Effective community college workforce development programs are designed to respond to industry market demand, both current and projected,” the report found. “The demand in today’s green sector is mostly not real, but projected.”
Because the green energy sector is made up mostly of small firms, especially companies that retrofit homes and businesses, many colleges are struggling to forge ties with employers and to understand their workforce needs. Which green technologies will take hold remains unclear, making forecasting employment growth difficult.
Most current jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy require high-level skills.
Colleges are challenged in trying to prepare low-income individuals with limited academic skills for these higher-skilled positions.
“Some jobs are more difficult to prepare low-skilled workers than for others,” the report said. “The leap from entry level green jobs, such as manual labor on a solar installation work site or blowing insulation into an attic, to more highly-skilled technician jobs such as installing lighting systems is wide.”
Energy efficiency technicians require strong conceptual and analytical thinking skills, allowing them to understand how complex energy and air systems work in homes and buildings. Technicians also must have knowledge about things such as electricity, physics and buildings codes.
To meet requirements under the federal stimulus legislation, colleges are required to develop curricula and programs for low-income, low-skilled populations.
“Community colleges are struggling with how training programs for green jobs can create upward mobility for low-skilled individuals,” the report said. “Some are attempting to create green energy career pathways but are having difficulty identifying the target occupations, skill needs and training when so little is known about the green energy demand for entry-level workers,” the report found.
In addition, many green energy programs at community colleges serve incumbent workers and attract students with higher educational backgrounds and work experience than do traditional community college programs. But federal funding requirements are forcing colleges, if they want federal stimulus money, to shift their focus to lower-income populations. Colleges struggle to provide meaningful internships for students to give them work critical work experience. Retention is also a problem among disadvantaged students, who must overcome financial and social barriers to stay in school.
Green energy industry standards and certifications are only now in the process of being established.
In order to develop their programs, some colleges are working with local industry partners to develop standardized occupational skill requirements. But these standards could be eclipsed by new national standards, which could in turn compromise certifications already earned by students. Moreover, some states are developing their own standards, further complicating the task for colleges.
Alssid believes the myriad of hurdles confronting community colleges means they must place green energy programs within the context of long-term career advancement over time.
“If we train a lot of people to caulk windows, that won’t ensure an economic future,” he said. “That’s why community colleges are so crucial to our green energy future. They have the experience in moving people along career paths. But colleges have to keep a cool head about this. Those that do will have the relationships they need so students can train and evolve and have an economic future.”