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Training for ‘Green-collar’ Jobs Moves to the Forefront on Campuses and in Communities

As new opportunities present themselves in so-called ‘green industries,’ the need for a new workforce to fill these positions is building. The region could have a new economic stimulus in environment- and energy-based fields, and while these sectors are still a small part of the business landscape, they’re also a bright spot on the horizon in terms of the jobs of tomorrow.

Nancy Bair is currently focused on the opportunities she sees in the creation of what are called ‘green-collar jobs.’

“I did some research, and that phrase is being thrown around like crazy,” said Bair, director of the Office of Workforce Development at Greenfield Community College. “We’re at the very beginning of a new field, and it’s only going to grow and change, so that’s part of our job — to grow and change with it.”

GCC ramped up its sustainable- and renewable-energy curriculum last year to provide more training for these jobs, which range from the manufacture of wind turbines to installation of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels to energy auditing, not to mention a growing number of more-traditional jobs being expanded with environmentally friendly components. The college has been helped along in part by a workforce-sustainability grant, which helped partner the college with dozens of other businesses and organizations across Western Mass., slowly making ‘green-collar’ a more recognized (and welcomed) term in the region.

In turn, jobs in environmentally based or sustainable-energy fields of service are under the watch of many as they emerge. Alexandra Risely Shroeder’s title alone speaks volumes about her work, for instance. She’s the ‘green jobs coach’ for the Franklin Hampshire Career Center and Regional Employment Board.

“We are looking at how to support the growth of renewable and sustainable practices, such as energy efficiency and green construction,” she said. “Sometimes, the economy grows, and a trained workforce doesn’t grow at the same time. We’re trying to synchronize this, and we also want to avoid training for a job that isn’t here.”

Meanwhile, Mike Kocsmiersky, vice president of research and development with SolarWrights Inc., a renewable-energy company that designs, sells, installs, and services renewable-energy systems across the Northeast, is paying close attention to the needs of his industry as it continues to evolve as an economic engine locally and across the nation.

“The industry is small, so right now there are only a handful of jobs compared to those in more-traditional fields like HVAC or plumbing,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we will prevail. It’s viable technology, it’s cost-effective, and energy conservation has an outstanding return on investment.”

The New Recruits

Despite their different views of the vast ‘green’ industry, all three of these professionals see the importance of finding, training, and employing the people who will populate the emerging green-collar workforce. It’s being culled from many different places; some are making a career change to green industries, while others are adding new skills to existing jobs. Construction outfits, for example, are looking to expand their services by recruiting employees with a background in green design and materials, while electricians and HVAC workers are learning how to properly wire solar-powered water heaters.

Still others still are choosing ‘green majors’ or certificate programs at community colleges, or learning about job opportunities as early as elementary school.

Schroeder said that, essentially, her job is to help residents in Western Mass. — and particularly in Franklin and Hampshire counties — identify career opportunities locally, thus stimulating the economy as well as creating important career ladders. She works with various literacy programs for adults, including those learning English as a second language; develops curricula for high-school and college courses to spread awareness of green economies; and also partners with the Franklin County House of Correction promoting new job opportunities.

However, much of her work as a ‘green’ careers coach is focused on younger populations, and developing a pipeline of trained workers to staff these emerging industries.

“I work with students from literacy programs, career centers, those who aren’t in school and perhaps are vulnerable,” said Schroeder. “I conduct youth workshops and have conversations with them about green careers, so they can explore their interests and skills to see if there’s a career match.”

She added that it’s an important part of the Franklin County REB’s overall economic development plan to create jobs that are available to high-school graduates, those who have earned a GED, and those holding associate degrees.

“One of the commitments of the REB is that, as we grow, the economy can create career pathways that are accessible at the entry level,” she explained. “That creates opportunities for advancement over time, and our vision is that the economy will be large enough to accommodate these over time, as well.”

The jobs Schroeder often explains to potential green-collar workers are wide-ranging, suggesting an industry that’s not relegated to any one type of training or work. They include solar-energy equipment installers, energy auditors, insulation installers, green construction workers, and a wide array of more-traditional jobs, such as in the fields of plumbing and home building, which can be augmented with an understanding of energy-efficient and environmentally friendly systems.

Looking ahead, Schroeder said she’s working with instructors at both the high-school and collegiate levels (including at GCC) to create a curriculum for teachers looking at some of the issues that are driving green-collar jobs forward, such as peak oil usage, fossil-fuel conservation, and the benefits of a green economy.

“The idea is to create an introductory awareness that relates to both the economy and the planet,” she said.

Sustainable Education

Bair said GCC is also in the midst of developing a comprehensive career-preparation program focused on sustainable and renewable energy and energy policy. The endeavor has been helped by a three-year, $373,000 grant from the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund (WCTF), an arm of the Commonwealth Corp., a nonprofit organization in Massachusetts focused on workforce development.

“We applied for the grant to develop a workforce around renewable energy — but we already had a sustainable-energy course in place when the grant opportunity came along,” said Bair, adding that the grant gave GCC a chance to build on an existing strength, as well as a jumping-off point to create new inroads to a greener economy in Franklin County. “We said, ‘let’s get local partners and start offering courses.’ That started a year ago, and people have been coming out of the woodwork to take these classes.”

In fact, the demand has been so great that Bair said GCC has already accounted for and exceeded the amount of the WCTF grant, but plans to move forward with green programming and make it a permanent part of the curriculum.

“We will figure out the last two years in a modified kind of way because we’re a little over, but we added courses due to demand,” she said. “GCC is expecting this to be an active program forever; the three-year grant should be just the beginning.”

GCC created a one-year certificate program in renewable energy and energy policy that is up and running now, and in two years, the college expects to launch a two-year degree program. Students now enrolled include those earning college credit as well as professionals looking to boost their skills through non-credit, professional-development classes, sometimes sponsored by employers.

Both groups attend classes together, creating an exchange of ideas and networking opportunities that are positive byproducts, Bair noted.

And partners have also come in abundance.

Bair said that because Franklin County is still a relatively rural area, there is no single, large company involved with the new green programming at GCC, but rather several smaller outfits ranging from nonprofits to community organizations to privately-owned businesses, and even a union: the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 108.

“We partner with contractors, plumbers, HVAC professionals, housing authorities, and they’re all from the local area,” she said. “We have several small partners, and they’re all the right people.”

These partnerships allow for assistance in teaching and planning courses, a pool of employees from which to draw, and a snapshot of what the needs of the region are in these industries, Bair added, especially in the area of energy conservation.

They’ve also been integral in illustrating just how broad the reach of green-collar jobs can be in the future, and that has been a learning experience for GCC as it unveils its new suite of courses catering to this employee set.

“We started figuring out what energy efficiency is, and what the demand is,” said Bair. “Photovoltaics, solar hot water, and energy audits are the biggest areas for us right now, but the job opportunities are seemingly endless.”

She explained that GCC has identified three categories of green-collar jobs that could all benefit from additional training at a collegiate level, for a degree or otherwise.

The first is a group of traditional jobs in new fields: store managers, sales and marketing professionals, Web designers, and even franchisees are all a burgeoning aspect of the green industry as new businesses are created in this arena. The second is trade jobs to which additional skills can be added, and the third is new jobs created as a part of the green movement. Policy leaders, biofuel chemists, certificate coordinators for green-building councils, and an increasing number of agricultural jobs are among these, in addition to those sustainable-energy jobs GCC has already recognized as an area of growth.

“We may need to continue to research these fields in the future to stay current, but our long-term goals are to create new jobs and necessitate new hires for those jobs,” said Bair, noting that, while GCC is only at the beginning of this process, some positive signs are already being seen, and recorded carefully.

“We’re at the beginning in terms of filling jobs, and it’s more complicated than just putting a person into an open spot,” she said. “Some of our students are unemployed, some are in different occupations, and some are taking on new responsibilities at existing jobs.

“We’re focused on creating pay increases as one byproduct we want to see across the board, and fostering more successful businesses is another,” she continued. “We’re hoping this training will start bringing in more money that is related to renewable energy, and we’re tracking business outcomes, and so far they’re looking good.”

It’s Not Easy Being Green

That said, the planning and design of courses to prepare a new green-collar workforce are ongoing tasks on many college campuses, which are navigating a fast-changing set of industries as they simultaneously devise the best academic approach to teaching green skills.

Kocsmiersky, who is the former owner of Kosmo Solar, bought by Rhode Island-based SolarWrights Inc. this past January, has been immersed in the solar trade (most specifically in the design and installation of photovoltaic systems, which serve as a conduit for solar power, and solar-heating systems) for more than a decade. He has maintained offices in Springfield, now serving as SolarWright’s Massachusetts branch, and has also been tapped by Springfield Technical Community College to assist in the development of its own green-collar curriculum.

When planning these courses, the needs of his industry are never far from Kocsmiersky’s mind. The paperwork alone, he said, is onerous for green businesses, which depend largely on state and federal tax credits and rebates to stem the costs associated with many of the products they sell and install, including PV systems.

He added that the skills necessary to thrive in this still-small yet growing sector are much more broad than learning how to install a solar panel on a roof. Rather, green-collar jobs like those in the photovoltaic industry draw from a number of disciplines, ranging from an understanding of building trades to legislative literacy.

“Presently, there seems to be a strong undercurrent at community colleges in the region trying to develop training programs,” said Kocsmiersky. “That’s where they’re running into difficulty, because very few have funding to develop classes. Curriculum developers are trying to consult people like me regarding what to teach.

“Another aspect of this ongoing conversation is asking ourselves what we should teach,” added Kocsmiersky, noting that he thinks courses should be broken into four categories.

These would include ‘solar principles’ — everything from looking at the effects the sun’s rays have on a property at different times of the day to solar thermal and electrical design; a designer’s class, examining the planning components necessary to install a wide array of green structures such as solar panels and wind generators; a practicum, offering experience in the hands-on aspects of green jobs, such as the proper way to mount solar panels to structures and wire systems, or how to prevent leaks; and, finally, an administrative track, designed to explain how complicated rebate programs work, how to process paperwork, and what legislation is driving the industry.

This last matter is a big, fundamental issue affecting green jobs, said Kocsmiersky — and employees at all levels in green industries must be charged with understanding the role politics plays now and will play later in the health of their sector.

“All things come back to political willpower,” he said. “The whole industry will continue to grow at the same numbers we’re seeing now, but if we start seeing a real commitment and less political football, there are huge opportunities for growth.”

Kocsmiersky also noted that tax credits are a big piece of this political puzzle.

“These are expensive systems, and that creates a need for green businesses to carry a certain amount of credit until rebates kick in,” he said. “People can’t a run business when they can’t get their cash flow under control or secure bank loans without certainty.”

He added that, on the other side of the coin, when rebates for homeowners and businesses installing energy-efficient electrical, cooling, or heating systems are reduced, they’ll be less likely to take the plunge.

“If you’re a business considering alternative energy, you might not get them installed until the following year, and that makes the lag in green industries, particularly the photovoltaic industry, even worse,” he said.

Time for Change

Still, Kocsmiersky said that main driver behind the green industry is the technology by which it’s defined, and the increasing acceptance of it, especially as electricity, oil, and gas prices soar.

“The industry is moving fast, and it’s sometimes hard to stay on top of it,” he said. “Six years ago, I knew everyone. Now, there are a lot of new players. The growth rate in my industry last year was about 60% in terms of gross sales — PV gets the lion’s share of the press, and is one of the more financially feasible, proven technologies for consumers. But at the end of the day, things like wind farms and geothermal technology will be even bigger industries — they’re just not talked about as much.

“We may be small,” Kocsmiersky concluded, “but the potential for big, a
nual growth is huge.”

And when that day comes, it’s hoped that a line of green-collar workers will be ready to punch their time cards.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]