Community college students prepare for green workforce

Students and educators inspect under the hood of a Toyota Hybrid Fuel Cell Vehicle at the National Fuel Cell Research Center at UCI. Saddleback instructor Morgan Barrows took the students from her Alternative Energies Technology class to visit the NFCRC on Wednesday, Feb 25. (Courtesy of the National Fuel Cell Research Center)

Micah Brown

The Academy for Educational Development, a global non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., released a report Jan. 12 highlighting the importance of community colleges in training students and preparing them to find employment in the growing environmental technology industry that has been dubbed the “green workforce.” With help from the National Council on Workforce Education, the report coincides with the fresh attitude of the new presidential administration that long-standing environmental problems are in dire need of solutions.

The AED report, entitled “Going Green: The Vital Role of Community Colleges in Building a Sustainable Future and Green Workforce,” details how community college programs are arming students with environmental training and technology to succeed in the blossoming industry.

Mindy Feldbaum, director of workforce development programs at the AED National Institute for Work and Learning, authored the report.

“It is important to get community colleges front and center because they have a strong connection to the labor market and they’re very flexible in responding to emerging industries and ever-changing skill needs,” said Feldbaum, who has been involved in workforce development for 19 years, including 10 years with the U.S. Department of Labor in the Employment and Training Administration.

“Community colleges have the structure and the experience in place, and the connections to business and industry to really help people get jobs,” said Feldbaum. The report showcases many schools that have environmental technology programs that have been up-and-running since long before America’s current economic woes.

“We know that community colleges have been doing this type of training in renewable energy and energy efficiency for many years, so we really needed to write a report to illustrate that community colleges are on the forefront of educating and preparing a green workforce,” said Feldbaum.

She also praised the efforts of many community colleges for walking the walk. “They’re integrating sustainability practices on campus and using their campuses as living laboratories.”

The term “green workforce” holds a lot of weight due to the vast, diverse nature of environmental issues. Green technology may encompass anything from global climate change, sustainability, alternative energies, and waste management, to biodiversity, air and water pollution, and ecological restoration.

Some environmental issues, however, are more urgent than others.

“Globally, nationally, and locally, it is and will be all about energy and water—these are the two critical areas,” said instructor Morgan Barrows, department chair for environmental studies and marine science technology at Saddleback College.

Prioritizing the most important environmental issues will determine which jobs become available. According to Barrows, some core environmental topics will probably take a backseat in terms of job availability. Instead, technology that is more geared towards general sustainability, and about becoming more environmentally responsible in our lives, businesses, and industries, will be emphasized.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think biodiversity will be much of a concern, although it should be,” said Barrows.

Many of the programs that Barrows has helped implement at Saddleback support the premise of the AED report.

“We offer an [associate degree] in Environmental Studies and a certificate in Ecological Restoration. Starting in Fall 2009, we will also be offering an Occupational Skills Award in Sustainability Studies, which will help students prepare for a career or even to transfer,” Barrows said.

Also available at Saddleback is Environmental Studies (ENV 105), an internship course. “This is beneficial for students since they get something to put on their resume, (and) they also have a chance to decide whether or not they like the field,” Barrows said.

There has been a lot of discussion about the $787 billion Recovery and Reinvestment Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama earlier this month. Many question who will benefit from the plan or if jobs will really be created.

The green workforce in particular seems poised to reap the benefits of the $7.22 billion earmarked for environmental programs and projects to be administered by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“The economy is in crisis, lots of people have been laid off and they need to upgrade their skills and be re-trained,” said Feldbaum, who was encouraged by the large commitment to environmental programs in the new stimulus package. “There’s a real belief that green jobs are a pathway to opportunity.”