In exploring the uncharted territory of training people for green jobs, community colleges are a modern-day Lewis and Clark.
But career colleges – the potential settlers of this brave new world – are waiting in the wings, ready to stake a claim if green jobs prove sustainable.
With billions of dollars in economic stimulus funding already in the pipeline and much of it linked to energy conservation, green energy sources and job creation, career college administrators have a keen interest in what develops.
Robert Johnson, Executive Director of the California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools, believes that member career schools on around 120 campuses are watching to see if the job market reinvents itself.
“I virtually believe that within each one of them (someone) is planning some training program as we speak,” Johnson said.
But observing how things shake out and starting new programs aren’t one and the same. For one thing, Johnson and others say, career college decisions are dictated by the real-world needs of employers.
And the schools tend to be more conservative than their community college counterparts, Johnson says, because their bottom lines, corporate expectations and records of success in placing students are high priorities.
He points to a community college near Palm Springs that’s a leader in alternative energy studies and recently announced a training program for workers in the fast-growing wind turbine industry.
“It’s a successful program, at least for the first 50 people who are trained, but what happens after that?” he said. “Are there further jobs out there?”
Johnson isn’t the only career college observer to express caution. But in government circles and in the media, the prospect of green job growth is a hot commodity.
In a recent issue, ran both an A-section story headlined “Green job drive to get $4 billion” and a three-page feature on green jobs – “A modern-day gold rush” – in the business section.
The photo? A worker plugging in a hybrid car recharged with energy collected by solar panels.
Things green are prominent on the national radar as well. Included in Magazine’s “Future of Work” cover story/special feature on May 25 was a half-page sidebar with the headline “Green Jobs: It Will Pay to Save the Planet.”
The article notes that, by 2018, the number of new green jobs in the U.S. – the estimate is 2.5 million – would be a 233 percent increase over what exists now.
But articles in newspapers and magazines don’t create new career college programs; CEOs and campus administrators do. And they’ll require tangible demand from employers before they hire teachers, create curricula, purchase technology and recruit students.
“We’re hearing interest, but as you know, in the career sector you have to hear about the market,” said Harris Miller, President and CEO of the Career College Association. “The employers have to define what they want. So I think right now, while people like the rhetoric of green jobs, no one has defined exactly what those are.”
Miller uses the example of the medical field, where career schools know which jobs – everything from medical records assistants to billing assistants to registered nurses – need to be filled. That can’t be said now for green jobs, where the definitions are still evolving.
“We, can’t just say, ‘Come here and get a green education,‘ and then when it comes time to find an internship, an externship or, more importantly, a job, we have to say that we trained you for something that may not exist yet,“ Miller said.
The result, Miller and Johnson say, is that while career schools may be gathering information on the green market, they’re not ready to jump in.
“I have heard where some (career college) people are talking about advertising campaigns, but I don’t know of any who have actually gotten into recruitment,” Johnson said.
That’s not the case with community colleges, a number of which have already launched training, certificate and degree programs in everything from wind turbine technology to alternative fuel development to energy audits and conservation.
Among those is Roxbury (Mass.) Community College, where instructor Jonah Decola, a green builder in the public sector, developed a program to train workers for jobs in energy conservation.
Decola and his students are pioneers in the state’s first green vocational program.
“There are a bunch of people who are hopeful about learning energy conservation, energy audits,” Decola said. “Even though in my construction work I’m installing renewable energy sources, much of what I’m teaching has to do with energy conservation, which is where the jobs are now.”
When he’s not teaching, Decola runs Green and Smart, a Cambridge-based construction company that works exclusively on green projects.
In class, Decola teaches his students how to perform energy audits. The students learn to evaluate a building’s energy usage and propose improvements backed by data that shows exactly how much money a customer will save.
Once the students are trained in what he refers to as “the science of energy conservation,” Decola even hires some as trainees for his real-world company.
He recently convinced the owner of a multi-family condominium building of the advantages of replacing the heating system.
“The owner was equivocating, was terrified about spending money, like we all are,” Decola said. “But seeing some hard data sold the project.”
Decola provided solid figures that showed the owner would enjoy a 73 percent return – charted over a period of time – on his investment.
“One of the things I’m training my students to do is to calculate savings so they can inform their customers on the returns on their investment,” he said.
When the owner’s first gas bill arrived, it was so low that he called the utility, Decola said. The owner thought his meter was broken.
“The rate of return was higher and they paid off the project,” he said. “This is the next inevitable boom. You can’t invest in a new kitchen and see a return on your investment.”
Although “weatherization” is a significant piece of the economic stimulus puzzle – Decola calls it “the low-hanging fruit of government funding – he says “the science behind weatherization is not just insulation. It’s moisture management and indoor air quality.”
Graduates of the Roxbury program may find jobs in their green field as projects receive stimulus funding, but what happens when the funding runs out?
It’s there that Decola, a business realist, takes a more conservative stance.
“There’s a fine line between supply and demand in an emerging economy,” he said. “If you train people too quickly, there won’t be any jobs.”
But other colleges, having sensed a green era with more permanent cultural change, are jumping on the bandwagon.
With the Obama administration promoting and funding energy conservation, alternate energy sources and green job creation, community colleges and even some four-year colleges have started new programs.
And while career colleges are taking a wait-and-see approach, David Semich, Department Chairman of the Technology Division of Pittsburgh Technical Institute, recently predicted an expanded role for IT workers in operating efficient buildings.
Quoted in , the magazine of the Career College Association, Semich said that companies will look for engineer-like qualities in employees who can monitor devices that integrate a building’s heating, air conditioning, lighting and electronic systems.
The green job market has a passionate observer and advocate in John Esson. Esson is the founder of the Green Careers Center in Hampton Beach, Va., and publisher of the , a bi-monthly publication that links college graduates with green jobs.
In the , job seekers are pointed to openings in green buildings and energy, biology and ecology, forestry and natural resources, environmental science and engineering and academic teaching and research fields.
Esson, who studied green architecture and then ecology in the mid-1970s, believes that job opportunities in environment-friendly areas will continue to grow.
“In the last five years, green buildings have really come back,” he said. “The federal government is requiring green buildings and it’s kind of come to the point where there’s a requirement and some money to train people to build them.”
The green boom even extends to the military, which Esson notes has a $3 billion construction project under way at Fort Benning, Ga., and was the recipient of a LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) certificate for a project at Fort Carson, Colo.
Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February of this year, and the Green Jobs Act of 2007, Esson believes that stimulus spending will create jobs, many of them new to the marketplace.
“This is an area very dear to our hearts, green jobs,” he said.
It remains to be seen if – and when – employers have a need for workers trained in new career college programs. But if it happens, CAPPS’ Executive Director says, career schools will be quick to respond.
“I think it’s really a question of what is the investment, what is the technology, what is the employer demand?” Johnson said. “If a career college sees a need, they can often jump in quickly, and probably quicker than a community college.”
David Knopf, Staff Writer