For 20-year-old Louis Wren, job security is about predicting future trends.
And the College of DuPage student, who works at a Wheaton auto repair shop and would like to someday own his own store, believes he’ll soon be seeing a lot of hybrid vehicles. So he was excited to enroll in a new alternative fuels course at the Glen Ellyn school.
"I figured I’d get a jump on it," Wren says. "It’s interesting. Hybrids are definitely different than regular cars."
As interest in green careers continues to grow, colleges and universities in Illinois and across the country increasingly are adding green courses and programs to their offerings – and they’re fast filling up. A recent surge in such offerings has been seen at community colleges aimed at developing the green economy work force, and Illinois in particular has been at the forefront in its response, experts say.
"There has been an incredible ramping up in the last five years of colleges offering programs with sustainability in their name," says Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The group works to help colleges and universities incorporate sustainable practices in everything from campus operations to course offerings.
In 2009, more than 100 green programs offering certificates, minors and majors were added to schools across the country, most focused on energy and sustainability, Rowland says. That’s as much growth as in the previous three years combined. "This is the decade of sustainability in higher education," he says.
The number of jobs in America’s emerging clean energy economy grew 9.1 percent between 1998 and 2007, nearly 2.5 times faster than overall job growth, a 2009 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows.
Jobs are being created for people of all skills and educational levels, the report says, including positions like engineers, plumbers, marketing consultants, teachers and administrative assistants.
And interest is only expected to rise, with President Obama’s pledge to create millions of green-related jobs in the energy, transportation and manufacturing fields in coming years.
Chicago, along with places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, is a hot spot for green job activity, says green-industry research firm Clean Edge.
Both students and school officials are responding to these trends. Student interest in the green movement has spiked, experts say.
"It’s a shift in mentality," says Melissa Lenczewski, interim director of environmental studies at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. "Students don’t just want jobs that make money. They want to do something that makes a difference."
"Students today are exposed to more global issues, and they’re beginning to understand the impact they can have," says John Paul Stimac, department chair of geology and geography at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
Schools increasingly are offering courses that extend beyond traditional environmental science into areas like law, philosophy, history, business and economics.
The ones seeing the greatest increase in demand are those that combine disciplines and emphasize hands-on learning, Stimac says. "Students realize that detailed knowledge of just one subject may no longer get them a job after college."
Across Illinois, universities and colleges are evaluating how best to prepare students.
The University of Illinois in Champaign and Chicago have created offices of sustainability to review campus operations and evaluate curriculum. Enrollment recently has gone "through the roof" in the Champaign university’s School of Earth, Society and the Environment, says Barbara Minsker, associate provost fellow for sustainability.
"Our consensus is that sustainability is not a major per se, but something we want to infuse across the whole university curriculum," she says.
Suburban colleges, meanwhile, are adding courses and programs in response to new career opportunities and new technologies and industry trends, school officials say.
In January, the Illinois Community College Sustainability Network, which includes all 48 community colleges in the state, received $1.7 million in state funding to develop sustainability initiatives. Fourteen schools, including the College of Lake County in Grayslake, have so far received money to create and staff green job centers.
This fall, CLC plans to add 18 new academic program options, including degrees and certificates in areas of sustainable design and construction, mechanical engineering technology, alternative energy technology, heating, ventilation and air conditioning and culinary arts.
College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn and Harper College in Palatine are offering new certificate programs in renewable energy that begin this fall.
Interest in COD’s program, which prepares students to work with solar and wind energy technology, is already high. "I have 15 students asking when it’s going to begin," says electronics technology professor Branislav Rosul.
Other green certificates are being planned at the DuPage college in areas including landscaping, energy audit analysis and interior design, and officials plan to offer an associate degree in renewable energy in 2012.
Naperville’s North Central College began an environmental studies minor last year, and its capstone class has seen full wait lists, says William Barnett, environmental studies program coordinator.
It’s the same story at the state schools. Officials at Illinois State University in Normal report skyrocketing interest in a renewable energy major that began in 2008. And Northern Illinois begins its new interdisciplinary environmental studies minor this fall, with plans to create a major in 2012.
"There’s a tremendous interest in this growing field, which has fast become part of the new economy," Lenczewski says. "I’m constantly getting e-mails from students asking when they can major in this."
NIU student Melissa Burlingame of DeKalb, who will graduate in August with a master’s degree, studied geography because it was the closest she could find to environmental studies. "I really had to put my own efforts into finding classes that suited me," she says. "I’m so glad NIU is offering this. It’s getting more interdisciplinary, and students will be more well-rounded because of that."
Schools also are increasingly investing in green equipment for student use, such as wind turbines, solar panels and hybrid vehicles. The College of DuPage and Eastern both have renewable energy labs for hands-on instruction.
Eastern, a leading school in sustainability initiatives, is building a power plant that will replace its steam plant and use biomass instead of coal. It will be complete in 2011.
To an extent, the future growth of the clean technology economy will depend upon politics and funding, experts say.
But businesses are at the forefront of the movement, Rowland says, with top corporations creating upper-level positions as sustainability officers.
"(Future) growth will be a result of businesses better understanding their role," Rowland says.
"Many are waiting for government to tell them how to deal with issues of carbon emissions, for example. The sooner they understand their strategy, the sooner they’ll have a better idea of what their employer work force will look like."
For now, students and schools are preparing. As student and societal interest continues to grow, the biggest challenge for schools will be finding faculty with the time to develop green curricula, Rowland says.
But officials are realizing that such courses are becoming integral to their programs. "Every student needs to have an idea of what sustainability is," Minsker says, "as a citizen of our country and as a future leader."
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