Higher, Greener Education

On the campus of American River College, the future is taking shape inside deceptively plain brick buildings. There, students are learning the nuts and bolts of what is expected to be the next wave of employment opportunities: green-technology jobs.

ARC wants to be ready when that wave hits. The catch is no one is certain when this will be. So, until then, the community college is doing what it can to prepare, juggling demand, scarce resources and uncertainty.

The demand is certainly there, at least from the students. The school of nearly 40,000 has waiting lists for classes in its green-technology certification programs, which include alternative energy, solar technology and clean-diesel courses. The demand is also there from businesses such as PG&E and SMUD, which are sending students to the school for retraining in clean technology.

ARC is taking a practical approach, though, and limiting space to help ensure graduates will find work.

“We are trying to make sure we match the labor market consistently,” said Chris McCullough, ARC’s associate vice president for workforce development. “We tailor the programs to meet [market] demand.”

For now, with the economy still sputtering, the green-tech sector is poised to take off but hasn’t hit full throttle just yet.

“In the long term, there are going to be great opportunities,” said Terri Carpenter, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency. “In the short term, the economy isn’t generating the jobs.”

As an example, Carpenter noted a federal and California Energy Commission program that provided financing for homeowners to make energy-efficient improvements. The property assessed clean energy program, known as PACE, has been on ice due to concerns from two mortgage companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Even with these economic and political uncertainties, proponents of green-tech jobs are optimistic. SETA’s Carpenter said she expected about 475 green jobs to open up in the Sacramento region by March 2011.

A March 2010 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimated there will be 1.3 million green jobs opening up nationally in the next decade. This month, a nonpartisan Palo Alto-based think tank Next 10 echoed that report when it published a study saying California’s green-tech industry is heating up. The study found that 40 percent of the world’s venture-capital investment in green technology in the first six months of this year has been in California.

ARC and its sister campuses in the Los Rios Community College District, which have green-force programs of their own, will be ready when the job market takes off (today green-tech employees represent less than 1 percent of California’s workforce). ARC is also developing a green-energy-management degree in partnership with Lane Community College in Oregon. Both schools are among the 10 community colleges nationally to receive federal funding for the degree program.

“Even if the jobs aren’t there immediately, they are going to be,” ARC’s McCullough said. “And these will be jobs that aren’t easily outsourced.”

Students enrolled in green-tech courses at ARC are already seeing results in an otherwise bleak job market.

On a recent weekday on campus, student Elmont Place stood next to an award-winning solar unit he helped build. The unit was on display, a bright spot among the squat buildings, and one that inspired curious students to stop and ask questions.

Patiently, Place discussed how the solar unit worked and the array of switches on the reverse of the roof panels. Before enrolling at ARC, Place had worked as a movie-theater technician.

Now, his solar-tech classes and hands-on experience have helped him land installation contracting jobs.

“The classes, like shading analysis, have really helped. It’s been an awesome experience,” he said.

Meanwhile, like green jobs, the solar unit stood by, shiny, new and ready to roll.

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