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Research essential before developing new energy programs

Jill Murtha and Zack Foreman, wind energy technology students at Mesalands Community College (New Mexico), use battery-testing equipment for a project. ​​​​​​​​​​
​Taylor Coleman is thrilled about his job in the wind technology industry after earning an associate degree from Mesalands Community College (MCC) in New Mexico.
He is earning $21 an hour, more than in his previous career as a funeral home director, and enjoys such perks as the use of a pick-up truck, laptop and credit card as he travels the country as a sales engineer for C.C. Jensen, a company based in Denmark that supplies oil filtration systems for wind turbines.
MCC did a lot of research on the job market before launching its North American Wind Research and Training Center in 2004. There are five wind farms within 200 miles of MCC, and more are planned.
“New Mexico is a leader in solar and wind resources,” says John Hail, the director of MCC’s wind energy technology program.
Do your homework
Although there are jobs in the state for graduates of MCC’s wind energy program, elsewhere there is concern that there may be a rush into creating programs in the alternative energy sector without adequately assessing the outlook for jobs.
Melonee Docherty, an instructional designer with the Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center (ATEEC), urges community college leaders to “do their homework before jumping on the sustainable and renewable energy bandwagon.”
“There is a growing need to ensure that the rush to train energy technology workers is balanced by a systematic analysis of what jobs are needed and where those jobs are located,” states a report published last spring by ATEEC that examines regional differences in the demand for energy-related jobs.
According to ATEEC’s Regional Energy Conversations, the large-scale solar industry offers the most job opportunities in the Southeast and Southwest, for example, while the North Central and South Central regions are likely to see more potential in the geothermal industry.
Community college leaders should “check with local and regional businesses and industries to see types of jobs are available, then do an occupational analysis to see what skills are required,” Docherty says. She also suggests inviting local employers to participate in focus groups and advisory committees.
Community colleges should also seek advice from business and industry groups and local government on what jobs in alternative energy careers need short-term training, certifications or associate degrees, adds Kirk Laflin, executive director of the Partnership for Environmental Technology Education, which is affiliated with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
When it comes to wind energy, “we’re trying to tell community colleges to slow down and take a deep breath,” Docherty says. “The job opportunities are not as great as we thought. It’s starting to get saturated, at least at the technician level.”
When Eastern Iowa Community College District (EICCD) looked into creating a program in wind energy, Docherty found “the market was fairly saturated already,” and Iowa Lakes Community College already had an industrial wind energy and turbine technology program.
So EICCS decided instead to focus on small-scale renewable energy for the residential and commercial market, says Ryan Light, the college’s director of renewable energy. That includes solar photovoltaic panels for homes and businesses, small farm-based wind turbines, micro-hydro systems and small-scale, farm-based biofuel.
The college also provides training in portable alternative energy systems that can be set up in areas struck by natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods.
Enhance existing programs
“Most community colleges already have courses that fit beautifully with an energy curriculum,” Docherty says. “You don’t need to develop a two-year program from scratch.”
Courses on energy efficiency, for example, can easily be added to existing programs in hydraulics or building technologies.
That’s the approach taken by the City College of San Francisco (California), says Associate Vice Chancellor Phyllis McGuire, who is also president of the National Council for Workforce Education, which is also affiliated with AACC.
Labor market research in San Francisco pointed to strong job prospects in energy efficiency and solar energy for homes and businesses.
“A lot of dislocated construction workers can easily step into those areas with a few courses,” McGuire says.
The college also added material on fuel-efficient cars to its automotive repair program because, as she notes, “A lot of people drive Priuses in this town.”
Los Angeles Trade-Technical College (LATTC) could enroll many more students in its alternative energy programs but sets limits because it doesn’t want to oversaturate the workforce pool, says Marcy Drummond, the college’s vice president of workforce and economic development.
“We try to match the number of students we enroll with the labor market demand,” she says.
Drummond’s office focuses on market research to determine the outlook for various jobs, has close ties to advisers in the industry and meets frequently with its partners in the utility industry.
Of the 14 “clean and green” certification programs offered by LATTC, Drummond says the program offering the most job opportunities is the renewable energy generation, transmission and distribution associate degree with an emphasis in power line mechanics. That’s mainly because many people working in that industry are expected to retire in the next few years.
If the jobs dry up in a particular specialty, LATTC’s “stackable certificate” program allows students to easily take a few more courses and earn a certificate in a related field. For example, someone certified to work on utility lines could take three or four more courses and become certified in renewable energy.
The program is designed to provide students with multiple career options, so they would be employable even if the particular industry they were training for faces a downturn, Drummond says. If the solar industry becomes too competitive, for instance, students who had training in solar energy would also have the skills to work in construction or as a HVAC technician.
A proactive role for community colleges
Debra Rowe, president of the U.S. Partnership for Education and Sustainable Development and chair of the Technical Advisory Committee of AACC’s Sustainability Education and Economic Development Resource Center, believes community colleges can play a role in creating jobs in alternative energy, as well as preparing students for existing jobs.
“Don’t wait for it to happen. Reach out to existing employers,” Rowe says.
Last fall, Oakland Community College in Michigan presented a seminar, co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and organizations representing plumbers, remodelers and other building trades, on how to expand their business—and their profits—by embracing sustainable energy. That will result in the creation of more jobs, says Rowe, who is on the faculty of OCC’s sustainable energies and behavioral sciences department.
For Rowe, it’s not just about creating jobs. Educating people about sustainable energy helps people reduce their own utility costs and helps create a better life for everyone.