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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 July 12 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Finding The Formula

Even the brightest students enrolled in the Renewable Energy Technology Program at Oregon’s Columbia Gorge Community College might be intimidated by the test they all must pass to earn their coveted credential.

Photo courtesy Laney College

Green energy programs at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., have been developed with extensive input from industry partners.

To get that one-year certificate or two-year associate of applied science degree, each student must successfully scale a 260-foot tower, atop which rests an energy-producing, multi-million dollar wind turbine.

But not even severe acrophobia can dissuade the growing legions of CGCC students competing to make the climb. Clambering up a tower taller than a 25-story building is not so intimidating, it seems, especially if it leads to a credential that for all practical purposes guarantees them a job that can pay up to $30 an hour, depending on experience, in the burgeoning green energy field.

“We have not lost anyone on the climb,” said Susan J. Wolff, CGCC’s chief academic officer. “People actually find it very exhilarating.”

Started in 2006 as a non-credit continuing education course, CGCC’s Renewable Energy Technology Program has grown rapidly since then, and now enrolls about 100 full-time students.

At a time when the rapidly evolving, quickly changing green energy field is challenging many colleges to identify workforce needs and build effective programs to meet them, CGCC’s, located in north-central Oregon, stands out as a green energy success story. It is one of only three certified wind energy technology programs in the country.

Wolff said the progress of the program is rooted in the strong ties the college has forged with the public utilities and the wind energy entrepreneurs who have erected hundreds of wind turbines in the east of the Cascades.

“The program has been very industry-driven,” she said. “They have been with us all the way. Our program is based on data that we get from the wind companies.”

According to a recent study by the Workforce Strategy Center, strong bonds with industry partners are critical to colleges hoping to develop effective green energy programs.

“The field is changing rapidly, and the only way you can stay current is to look at the data,” said Julian Alssid, director of the center. “You have to establish relationships with employers so you’ll know what they need. Colleges can’t design programs and curriculum without them.”

Brand New Industry

Broadly defined as jobs that involve the protection of wildlife or ecosystems, reducing pollution or waste, or reducing energy usage and lowering carbon emissions, green jobs have been identified by policy makers as critical to the country’s economic future. But the thousands of predicted jobs in wind power and other green energy fields have not yet materialized. That has left colleges struggling to develop programs that lead to employment.

“What we are seeing today is the challenge of adjusting to the needs of a brand-new industry,” Alssid said.

Some colleges, however, are ahead of the green energy curve, carving out successful green energy programs.

For Wolff, the first indications that a budding wind power industry was ready to flourish in Oregon appeared on the highway as she made her 20-mile commute from her home to campus. There, she spotted flatbed trucks transporting the huge blades that would be affixed to wind turbine hubs.

“I thought, ‘There must be people who are needed to take care of these things,’” she said. “We got some money for a needs assessment. There were four or five wind farms nearby, and we found there was a need for 360 technicians. That may not sound like a lot for an urban area, but for a rural area, to be able to earn a living wage, that is significant. I thought we had to develop this program.’”

A six-month non-credit course was offered in January 2007 and proved critical to the longer term success of the program.

“The industry people didn’t know us,” she said. “We didn’t know them. That’s why we created the non-credit program. They had workforce needs, and they came to see us as a solution. We’ve been able to adapt. The program is in its third year, and we have revised the curriculum four times.”

Such changes are being driven by industry. As the field evolves, employers need technicians with higher-level, adaptable skills. The CGCC Renewable Energy Program has responded by ratcheting up the academic prerequisites needed for admission to the program; prospective students must have at least a 2.5 GPA and have earned a C or better in intermediate algebra, introductory expository writing, college reading and basic computer skills.

Strong Academics

Strong academics are also at the heart of the new green energy program at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., said Peter Crabtree, dean of the college’s Career & Technical Division. In 2009, the college received a grant from a local foundation to start a one-year certificate program in Building Performance and Energy Efficiency. Both programs were developed with extensive industry input and include healthy doses of math, science, writing and physics, he said.

The idea is to equip students not only with the ability to get a job, but to have a career.

“There are some myths about the green energy field that you can grab someone off the street and put them in a six-week course, and they will be an installer,” Crabtree said. “That’s not the case.”

“It’s all about transformation for our students. It’s not only about getting a job,” Crabtree said. “Companies want students who have a passion for green to be aware of developments in the green energy field. ”

“We have developed a course in customer service. It’s a lab format in which we teach interpersonal skills. It’s building transferable skills sets.”

The college has also taken extraordinary steps to help its students – who live primarily in an urban area marked by persistent poverty and crime – succeed in the programs. To reduce program attrition and improve student outcomes, the college has full-time case managers to help students facing various life challenges.

“That is very important,” Crabtree said. “There are some folks who have been out of work for a very long time. They need help. What we’re trying to do is overcome obstacles and move people forward.”

The program has proven to be very popular. It’s most recent class had 150 people competing for 25 slots.

The Energy Management Program at Lane Community College — the nation’s oldest, dating from 1980 — is similarly popular. Enrollment has tripled to 90 students over the past several years and now has a waiting list. The program offers a two-year associate degree in energy management, renewable energy and water conservation.

Steady Growth

The program has experienced steady growth despite rapid changes in technology, said program director Roger Ebbage.

“There is a standard process that we teach, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “What has changed is the technology, and we keep up with that.”

Lane uses its campus as a laboratory for students enrolled in the energy management program. The approach gives students access to a wide array of buildings; structures on campus range from brand new buildings to ones that were built in the 1960s.

Facilities management staff allows students into mechanical rooms to examine heating and cooling systems. Though the students don’t actually repair the systems, they learn to recognize the systems in the buildings they’ll work on once they are employed.

The Lane program is soon to expand. A National Science Foundation grant will allow the college to offer its program through distance learning starting this fall. Several colleges have signed up, including Delaware Technical Community College and Bronx Community College. Each participating college will be encouraged to use their campuses as a laboratory setting for their students, Ebbage said.

“It’s important that the facilities people don’t freak out when you look into the guts of the building,” he said.

The colleges also will be directed to maintain close ties to industry partners, Ebbage said. At Lane, each green energy program has an industry advisory board.

“The industry is moving very quickly,” he said. “If we want to stay relevant, we have to stay abreast of what is current in the industry.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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