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Road to Recovery: Community College Curriculum Going Green



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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, March 15, 2010
It’s a popular option for the unemployed during a recession – go back to school and learn new skills.  The most recent story in our “Road to Recovery” series looked at for-profit career colleges that are flourishing by providing specializedtraining for local industry.  Today, we examine a similarinitiative at the region’s community colleges, which are quickly revamping their courses to train the nextgeneration of green-tech workers.

THE CLASS

About a dozen students attending the Energy-141 class at American River College are outside today for some field work.  The course is called “Electrical & Mechanical Applications for Solar Installers.”  The students are right outside the classroom in groups of two or three. Their task is to Velcro a small solar panel to a wooden base mounted on a tripod.  Then, they plug in two measuring devices and take readings as the sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds.
 
Kevin Jones: “So what are we doing now?  We’re measuring the angle of the sun and the power that the panel’s producing by the sun.”
 
52-year-old Kevin Jones, a former warehouse worker, is marking down the measurements on a worksheet.
 
Kevin Jones: “I’m on disability right now.  But I’m going to school trying to get a certificate in this and become more employable and change career fields.”
 
Inside the classroom is Paul Jones – no relation.  He’s 24, loves construction – but wants a stable job.
 
Paul Jones: “Used to install tile, then I got laid off.  I did that for about six years.  Other than that, I worked at Taco Bell and stuff like that, you know?”
Ben: “And now?”
Paul Jones: “Just going to school, trying to get my certificate so I can get a job installing panels.”
 

THE PROGRAM

That’s the story you’ll get from a lot of Energy 141 students: They’re hoping to pass a certification test to work in the solar industry.  American River College has a five-class program to get them ready.  It’s one of several tracks in the year-old GreenForce initiative across the Los Rios Community College District, including…
 
Throgmorton: “Solar systems design, estimation and sales; lighting efficiency technician; green energy systems designer …”
 
That’s Dan Throgmorton, who oversees the GreenForce initiative and the district’s other training programs.  The two million dollar initiative is funded by the federal Department of Labor. It’s designed to train 1,200 students over three years – and 500 each year after that.
 
Throgmorton: “I believe we’re on track to make sure we have a sustainable workforce to grow the green and clean technology sector.  We’ve worked to develop programs to be responsive to those industry needs.”
 
In fact, Los Rios has altered its curriculum based on what green businesses want.  Todd Lindstrom is with Roseville-based Solar Power, Incorporated. The company manufactures and installs solar panels, and just won a big chunk of stimulus funds to open a factory in Sacramento.
 
Lindstrom: “One of the questions they asked us – and it also is the rest of the green-tech industry – was, what are you looking for out of the employees?”
 
Beyond solar energy knowledge, Lindstrom wants employees with strong public speaking skills.  Los Rios officials adjusted their classes accordingly.  Now, the company plans to hire up to 100 new workers – and Lindstrom says students at the Los Rios program will have a leg up.
 
Lindstrom: “In particular if they happen to be entry level, we’ll find that they’re just that much more able to go to work and directly interact with the public or with our clients with a lower level of supervision and a quicker ramp-up period from training.” 


THE TIMING
 
Sacramento community colleges aren’t the first in California to work with the green-tech industry on a training program.  The Bay Area started one a few years back – before the recession – and theirs is a cautionary tale.  Kitty O’Doherty is with the Bay Area Community College Consortium.
 
O’Doherty: “Based on the research, it looked very good.  And we started to develop courses and programs.  Right when many of our students were finishing up our courses and programs, the economy wasn’t doing well.  And the number of projected jobs wasn’t there at that moment.”
 
For example, 225 students graduated from one of their new training programs last May, but only 18 got jobs in the industry upon graduation.  Still, O’Doherty is optimistic about the future – and so is Robin Purdy.  She’s with the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, which is working with Los Rios on the GreenForce initiative.
 
Purdy: “We believe that the work is coming and that the next bottleneck that will happen is businesses that want to bid on that work won’t have a qualified workforce.  So we believe that we have timed it well, and there will be an expansion in those jobs.”
 
Back in the classroom at American River College, Brad Price is watching his students closely.  He has two good reasons to make sure everything times out perfectly.  He’s Energy 141’s instructor, and he owns a solar company himself.
 
Price: “A year ago, if I needed to find someone to work and install PV panels on a house, I was actually having to go out and find somebody who was maybe a concrete guy or a painter or maybe if you’re lucky an electrician.  And then hand-train them over months to get them up to speed.”
 
Los Rios GreenForce students could start hitting the job market as soon as this summer.  Then ... it’s up to the economy.
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