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Retooling the Work Force for a Green Economy

Companies and communities need to work together to satisfy the need for workers with "green knowledge."

Craig Guillot (June/July 09)
(page 2 of 2)
Layers of "Green Knowledge"
Van Horn says that one of the best things about building the green economy is that most jobs will not require much additional training: "In many of these jobs, the fundamental and foundational skills are already there. There are just additional `green layers' and additional skills that need to be added for some. An electrician would understand how to wire and install a solar panel device, but he just might not understand where the best location might be," explains Van Horn.

First and foremost, workers employed in green industries - whether they be electricians and plumbers or accountants and scientists - will need to have the basic skills and traditional competencies. That additional layer of green knowledge can either be learned in tandem or after leaning the core skills. Some green jobs, such as manufacturing workers in a solar panel factory, may not even need any particular green knowledge. Entry-level workers, e.g., those working with caulking and insulation for weatherization programs, may need little more than a few days of training in basic construction skills.

Nevertheless, across the country, a number of colleges and trade schools are offering credentials, degrees, and certificates, including the Photovoltaic Installer Certificate from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and a bachelor's degree in Sustainable Management from the University of Wisconsin. And Michigan's Delta College is offering an associate's degree in chemical process technology. The program is geared toward helping companies in the growing solar industry like Hemlock Semiconductor meet their future work force needs. Other common certifications are available from the Building Performance Institute, the Association of Energy Engineers, Solar Energy International, and the Green Building Certification Institute.

"There is going to be demand for a number of highly educated divisions, from the invention-level Ph.D.s and engineers down to the more entry-level like building designers or architects," says Van Horn.

Collaborative Efforts
One of the ways communities can prepare for green jobs in the emerging energy economy is to build a coordinated, flexible work-force-development infrastructure. This includes using federal and state public policy as a roadmap, building partnerships with employers and labor unions, and developing a green jobs work force collaborative. Two such examples of collaborative efforts include the Los Angeles Infrastructure and Sustainable Jobs Collaborative and the New Jersey TLD Talent Network.

The John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development reports that the key elements of effective talent networks include identification of assets, the cultivation of career pathways, aligning green jobs work force training efforts with economic development initiatives, and not duplicating training or curricula. Because the green industry is still in its infancy of developing set educational standards and career paths, communities will have to rely on flexibility as a way to capitalize on green industry growth.

Rockford, Ill., is one such town that has found great success with green industry and a flexible work force. Plugging a gap in the decline of manufacturing, the town recently landed a deal with the Chinese Wanxiang Group Co. to build a 40,000-square-foot solar panel assembly plant. The first phase of the project is expected to employ up to 60 full time workers with salaries between $40,000 and $70,000. If successful, the operation has the capacity to increase its size to 160,000 square feet and 240 employees. Eric Voyles, vice president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council, says a long-term relationship with Chinese companies and a concentration of highly skilled workers helped them win the plant. Wanxiang received 10 acres of land at no cost on which to build the plant and will also receive tax breaks of up to $1.2 million over the next 15 years. Voyles says landing the plant was a milestone, but only the beginning of what green industry could do for the region.

"We have several green initiatives that are moving forward and it's all about jobs for us. It allows us to take advantage of the strengths that we already have. Rockford is already a leader in manufacturing and [having workers who already understand manufacturing] means a company can come into this market and quickly be running and profitable," explains Voyles.

Transferable Skills
As many green jobs in the coming years will most likely be concentrated in construction and manufacturing, many blue-collar skilled trades workers can be easily retrained to move into such fields. Using transferable skills to hop into green jobs and industries is an idea that sounds great to communities that have experienced big job losses in manufacturing.

Ray Miller, an adjunct assistant professor and Superintendent of Utilities at the University of Cincinnati, says that Ohio has had success by jumping into the green field early on. In 2008, as part of the $1.7 billion Building Ohio Jobs plan, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland called for $250 million to invest in wind and solar energy and efficiency; $400 million to clean up polluted sites and preserve open space; $150 million to help trucks, trains, and ships move more efficiently; and $200 million to redevelop downtown neighborhoods. Encompassing everything from block grants for weatherization of inner city homes to installation of solar panels, the initiatives have thus far been successful at putting people back to work without much retraining.

"Ohio still has a solid core of manufacturing capacity. There are a lot of experienced machinists, fabricators. There are companies that may have downsized but have the ability to make anything anyone wants to make. It's an opportunity to retool Ohio's manufacturing base to get into the green technologies," says Miller.

Partnering with workers' unions and organizations may also be another good tactic for preparing the work force. The Blue Green Alliance is a national partnership of labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding green jobs and industry. Executive Director David Foster says that all of the organizations involved nationwide account for more than 6.5 million members.

Foster also believes that most of the jobs that could be created in the green economy require very little additional training for skilled tradespeople. Electricians, pipe fitters, carpenters, truck drivers, steel workers, welders, and electrical engineers can jump into many green jobs without much, if any, additional training. The Blue Green Alliance conducted a study of the six biggest solutions to global warming and identified 60 job categories that would be needed in large numbers by the transformation of the economy. Some of those included truck drivers, building inspectors, roofers, construction managers, metal fabricators, production helpers, dispatchers, machinists, and equipment operators.

Building the Human Infrastructure
Foster explains that one of the advantages of the growth of a green economy is the creation of other jobs for entry-level workers. Creating a whole new generation of jobs for people who might have been previously marginalized in the job market means that short-term training projects for new and entry-level jobs will be critical in building the human infrastructure. One of the projects that the Blue Green Alliance is working on is in the weatherization industry, where it can use its existing training centers to create four- to six-week programs that teach people the basic skills to work in residential weatherization. Some trade schools and community colleges are already offering programs, such as the Pennsylvania College of Technology, which offers courses on everything from home energy auditing and weatherization tactics to management of weatherization crews.

Professor Miller also says that one thing many people aren't talking about is the lack of skilled tradespeople in general. As many baby-boomers are entering retirement, some industries will have 50-70 percent of their work forces at retirement age in the next three or four years. Over the past couple of decades, the push to drive many students into college has left a void in the trade schools and fewer students willing to work blue-collar jobs. As manufacturing of solar panels and wind-powered turbines grows, those companies will likely be looking for areas that have concentrations of skilled workers. Hence, it's time to retool the work force. 
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