Building a workforce for the new-energy economy

Nora Caley //March 1, 2011//

Building a workforce for the new-energy economy

Nora Caley //March 1, 2011//



Andrew Andersen had two things going for him when he decided to make a career change. He was interested in green building technology, and he was working in road construction for a large contractor.

When Andersen started doing Internet searches for solar programs, he found that Red Rocks Community College would let him transfer some of his credits from Colorado State University, from which he had earned a degree in construction management.

So he enrolled at RRCC, completed 22 credits in one semester, received a Solar Photo Voltaic Designer certificate and was soon hired as a project manager for a solar integrator company. "Getting the crash course in solar got my foot in the door," he says. "It worked out well."

Many workers either want to make a change before they are forced to or have to come up with a Plan B because their old career ended. For some, the new-energy economy looks attractive. Area public and private schools are preparing workers for these green jobs, launching everything from weeks-long programs for manufacturers and installers to professional programs for executives.
Colorado had 14,393 clean jobs in 1998, according to "The Clean Energy Economy," a 2009 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts. That number grew nearly 2 percent a year and reached 17,008 clean jobs by 2007. That was higher than the national average of 15,106 clean jobs per state.

The Colorado Cleantech Industry Association estimated the state has added 5,000 more clean energy jobs since 2007, as reported in the group's "Colorado Cleantech Action Plan" released in October.

Community college representatives say many of the jobs are for entry-level skilled trades workers.

Red Rocks Community College offers certificates and associate's degrees in solar photovoltaic, solar thermal (water heating), and wind technology. Joan W. Smith, dean of the energy and environmental technology program at Red Rocks Community College, says some of the students are laid-off finance people, but most are electricians, construction workers and other tradespeople who want to move into solar installation jobs.

The fastest-growing program at RRCC is the energy efficiency weatherization certificate. "The easiest way to really make a difference is to look at energy we do not use in the first place," Smith says. By sealing their structures, businesses can save energy, save money, and then use that money to hire staff. Smith says one business saved $3,000 a month in energy costs, enough to hire an office manager.

Community College of Aurora launched its Renewable Energy Technology program in fall 2009. The first certificate program is the Solar Photovoltaic Systems Technician, which prepares the student for an entry-level job in solar installation. Program coordinator Tom Dillon says the coursework takes about 25 weeks.

"We decided we would take our time to train people," he says. "One thing that discourages people is there are some schools where you can go for a couple weeks and supposedly be trained enough to become an installer."

Some are taking classes but not seeking installer jobs. Eric Krohn, a mortgage broker for a local bank, earned his certificate at CCA and plans to specialize in financing renewable energy systems. He already has one client. "We are in the process of trying to design basically a lease program that I'm going to pitch to the bank," he says. "Using my network, I'm trying to get loans done."
Also in Aurora, new entry Ecotech Institute launched its programs in 2010. The school, part of Education Corp. of America, offers associate's degrees in Solar Technology, Wind Energy Technology, and others.

Academic Dean Glenn Wilson says the goal is to prepare workers for manufacturing jobs at local solar companies and wind turbine manufacturers. "These are the types of jobs that are not just repetitive jobs that anyone off the street can do. They're very technical," he says. "Companies want to find employees that make the product, improve the process and add value."

Redstone College in Broomfield, formerly Colorado Aero Tech, recently launched its Wind Energy Technology program. The school has a partnership with Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, which has manufacturing facilities in Colorado.

"Vestas is the first member of our professional advisory committee," says Mike Couling, Redstone's campus president. The first class will graduate in October, and although they are not guaranteed jobs at Vestas, Couling says a Vestas representative told the 40 or so students the company is interested in interviewing them.

Four-year colleges and universities are also preparing workers.

In January 2010, the University of Colorado at Boulder launched a Sustainability Management Certificate for professionals. Students take 10 Friday afternoon classes to earn the certificate. Kelly Simmons, program manager for the Sustainable Practices Program at CU Boulder, says 50 people have graduated and that about 500 people have taken classes. Many have business management skills but lacked training in sustainability. "This gives them some vocabulary, some understanding of the issues," she says.

CU Boulder's other programs include RETool, an intensive four-day executive education certificate program in energy. Paul Komor, education director of the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at CU Boulder (RASEI), says companies send employees to classes. "We have folks from accounting, from law firms. They are getting more business from energy companies and want to be able to talk to them," he says.

Other options for professionals include the managing for sustainability track in the MBA program at University of Colorado Denver. John Byrd, a senior instructor, says CU Denver started that certificate program about two years ago, and some of the first graduates are corporate executives with job titles such as sustainability manager. "If you have someone come in and put up solar panels, that's nice, but the real impact is thinking long term about how we can reorganize a company to have a lower impact and use less fossil fuels."

Regis University added a senior seminar called Justice and the Common Good Sustainable Enterprise. "Instead of saying, ‘We will teach you about the green economy,' we said, ‘We want you to work for 16 weeks to develop an enterprise that solves a problem,'" says Beth Parish, a professor who teaches the course.

For example, when students brought up the idea of a restaurant with corn-based utensils, she got them to think about locating the eatery where consumers didn't have to drive a fossil-fueled vehicle to get there.

CSU established The School of Global Environmental Sustainability in 2008. Among the offerings is an interdisciplinary minor in Global Environmental Sustainability. More recently, CSU announced the launch of the Center for the New Energy Economy, with former governor Bill Ritter as director and senior scholar.

Some educational opportunities will take place outside the academic realm.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment and The Green Jobs Colorado Advisory Council will award grants totaling more than $700,000 through an Intergovernmental Competitive Grant process. "We're reviewing proposals for on-the-job training, with the goal of people being hired right after they've been trained," says Christine Shapard, chair of the council and executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association.

There are also efforts to train and hire people who have been underrepresented in green jobs. The Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau collaborated on the Green Jobs Pipeline for Women Project, an effort to increase Colorado women's awareness of what these jobs are, how to train for them, and how to get a green job.

"The majority of the green jobs are in the trades, and women haven't traditionally been in those fields," says Janna Six, chief sustainability officer for the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. "Our goal was to point out there are opportunities."

The Alliance released the "Green Jobs Pipeline for Women: Best Practices Report," which included case studies such as Carbondale-based Solar Energy International. SEI does not offer certificates or degrees but does have workshops, such as women-only one-day seminars.

The Denver Green Jobs Initiative offers free training and job assistance to unemployed and disadvantaged residents of Five Points. The DGJI is a partnership of Mi Casa Resource Center, the Denver Office of Economic Development and others.

Schools continue to add classes, and representatives say graduates will get jobs. "What we hear from industry is they know the demand is there," says Couling, from Redstone. "Their question is, is there going to be enough pipeline to produce these employees?"

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