Winding Up for a Sustainable Economy
From technicians to research scientists, the workforce looks to higher education as the source for training needed to support the coming green society. What are the key challenges?
By Karla Hignite
How many people does it take to turn an economy green? The Obama administration aims to create five million green jobs during the next 10 years. Is that a pipe dream? Is it enough?
What can be said is that more workers are needed than are currently equipped to fill the requirements for emerging industries. For some sectors of future job growth, like renewable energy, the lack of specific skill sets poses a critical experience deficit. After all, it takes some unique qualifications and plenty of practice to work 300 feet in the air maintaining a wind turbine, notes Stephen Miner, senior vice president, conference, membership, and business development for the American Wind Energy Association.
The wind technology programs now criss-crossing the country from Oregon to Maine and from Texas to North Dakota can't churn out certified technicians fast enough. “Some of our larger manufacturers talk of needing 3,000 additional technicians in the next three years,” says Miner. The community and technical colleges with active programs that are currently training the majority of technicians could likely provide only about 2,000 in that time frame—a clear disconnect between what is needed and what existing programs can produce, notes Miner.
Wind energy supplied only about one percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2008. Yet, in comparison to all forms of renewable and conventional energy combined, wind accounted for more than 40 percent of new installations last year, says Miner. “The U.S. wind energy industry shattered all previous records in 2008 by installing 8,358 megawatts of new generated capacity—enough to serve more than two million homes.”
The record year increased the nation's total wind power generating capacity to more than 25,170 megawatts and channeled an investment of some $17 billion into the economy, notes Miner. More would have been accomplished had it not been for supply chain challenges and a year-end global economic slowdown that brought projects to a standstill, he adds. If the industry is to reach its projected goal of 300,000 megawatts—roughly 20 percent of the total U.S. energy supply—by 2030, it will need a record-breaking year every year from now until then. Miner remains confident: “We're only at the beginning of tapping the nation's extensive—and in some cases, phenomenal—wind resources.”
Another plus: Wind energy kicks in quickly. “It may take a year to conduct a feasibility study, ensure the financial viability of a site, and secure permits, but once those activities are complete and financing is available, construction time is fairly short, and power generation is immediate,” says Miner. Even as businesses wait for capital financing markets to thaw, much behind-the-scenes work is under way, which means once projects start up again in earnest, many more workers will be needed.
The renewable energy sector is one example of an industry that will require significant worker preparation to match employment needs. The demand for engineers to design and build a new green-energy infrastructure—let alone renew America's bridges, roads, tunnels, water systems, and dams—will put pressure on academic institutions to ramp up program offerings and attract and train professionals in all fields.
“As a national education system, we currently graduate only about 70,000 engineers annually across all types of programs,” notes Mark Johnson, associate professor in the department of materials science and engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU), Raleigh. Even if only 10 percent of the green-collar jobs the Obama administration wants to create would require high-level skill sets such as those needed in engineering, the shortfall is evident, adds Johnson.
“Even traditional skills such as welding benefit from new approaches that alleviate negative impacts on air quality.”
Brice Harris, Los Rios Community College District
In addition to his teaching role, Johnson is director of the industrial collaboration and innovation program for a new National Science Foundation (NSF) engineering research center on NCSU's campus tasked with developing next-generation smart-grid technology that will, among other things, allow individual homes and businesses much greater control over energy consumption.
NCSU is one of many higher education institutions likely to receive federal funding for a host of green research initiatives in the coming years, ranging from automotive technology and advanced biofuels to energy conversion and storage and carbon sequestration. At every level of the economy, higher education can and will play a lead role in forging a green economy and growing a green workforce.
In many respects, campuses are ready and waiting. Much like the LEED-certified building projects that have become a norm in higher education construction and renovation, a greening of the curriculum has already taken root. Sustainability-focused workforce training and certificate and degree programs geared to educate the next generation and to retrain career shifters and out-of-work professionals are popping up on campuses across the United States. In addition to teaching new skills, many programs weave critical interdisciplinary connections to prepare graduates to understand the nation's and the world's challenges as systemic problems that require broad solutions.
Following are examples of institutions well on the way to developing the rich varieties of work expertise required to fundamentally reshape the nation's economy toward sustainability, and the key challenges that must be addressed in the process.
Supply and Demand
Many community and technical colleges, in particular, are responding quickly to emerging employment demands within their cities and states. According to Brice Harris, chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District, Sacramento, California, the number of “clean and green” companies in the greater Sacramento area has doubled to more than 100 within the past year. In 2007, the district launched its GreenForce initiative, a dual effort to green the district's entire curriculum and to develop certificate and degree programming in response to emerging fields such as solar technology, energy and water management, green building design, and alternative fuels technology. Last year the U.S. Department of Labor awarded the district a $2 million grant for its energy programming to encourage further workforce development opportunities in these emerging sectors and to increase the district's capacity to recruit and train workers, including those from traditionally underrepresented populations.
Harris attributes the dramatic rise in green-business upstarts to an overall favorable policy climate in California—and, more specifically in the Sacramento area—to the dedicated research of a neighboring institution. “Our region has been on the front edge of green trades and technology led in large part by the work at the University of California, Davis, which has been advancing the research in these fields for at least the past decade,” says Harris. The ripple effect of this broad focus on sustainability can be seen in existing job sectors such as construction, manufacturing, and architecture. In response, many of the district's traditional programs have seen a greening of existing coursework across the board, says Harris. “Even traditional skills such as welding benefit from new approaches that alleviate negative impacts on air quality,” he explains.
Alden Zeitz, director of the Wind Energy and Turbine Technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College, Estherville, is a former site supervisor with General Electric. It was in that capacity that he first had contact with the college when helping to install a wind turbine project on campus. Conversations ensued about who was providing formal training in this area. One thing led to another, and soon thereafter Zeitz was helping develop the curriculum to launch a two-year degree program for which he became the sole instructor. Zeitz began teaching in fall 2004 with 15 students.
By fall 2008, the program had grown to four full-time instructors, 106 students, and a building addition that nearly tripled the program's initial floor space. Enrollment this fall swelled to 155 students, requiring two more full-time instructors and four additional classrooms. A few of Zeitz's first wind turbine students who graduated from the program have already moved from operations jobs into management positions. The program has attracted students from as far away as Pennsylvania and California and captured keen interest from other colleges looking to develop their own programs.
While financing may have placed a temporary hold on wind projects across the country, one silver lining is that most training programs, including the one at Iowa Lakes, have eager financial backing from federal and state governments and industry, notes Zeitz. The college received a $500,000 grant from the federal government and equipment donations and building funding from industry partners.
Sustainability is no longer just a marketing buzzword—it's a necessary business approach in a rapidly changing economy.
In another example, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and the state's legislature recently awarded more than $2 million in state appropriations to Mesalands Community College, Tucumcari, where construction is under way for new facilities to house the North American Wind Research and Training Center. Like leaders from other western states, New Mexico officials see renewable energy as a major economic generator. Governor Richardson recently created a green-jobs cabinet to enhance clean energy development and to spur job creation through education and workforce development initiatives.
Ramping up production capacity of clean and renewable energy is only part of the equation for turning the nation's energy supplies green. Accommodating these new sources from multiple points and efficiently moving power to where it is most needed will require transforming the country's current electricity grid.
NCSU is set to become a leader in this endeavor as home to the NSF-sponsored Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center. The FREEDM Systems Center is supported by an initial five-year, $18.5 million NSF grant and an additional $10 million in institutional support and industry membership fees. It represents a partnership of eight U.S. and European universities along with industry and national laboratories in 28 states and 9 countries.
Johnson describes the nation's current electricity system in terms of two grids. The first involves long-distance transmission—for example, moving power from the Dakotas to the eastern United States. The transmission challenge includes developing solutions to efficiently conduct electricity across the country and incorporating new sources of energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal into the supply chain.
By contrast, the primary focus of the FREEDM Systems Center is on that final mile of the grid. “Think in terms of the equipment and wires on wooden power poles throughout every neighborhood, and that's where we're focused,” says Johnson. “Currently this grid has no communication between distribution points and your house,” he explains.
Within a smart-grid energy paradigm, two-way communication would exist between local utilities and homes and businesses. Each home or business would have individual control over the times when energy is stored and used throughout the day. Consumers could match their energy use to times of lower cost and even sell back excess power not used or self-generated from a rooftop solar installation, for instance, says Johnson. “Not only could this two-way exchange give consumers greater ability to save on energy costs, but it would also help utilities alleviate excessively high spikes in demand, such as in late afternoon when businesses are still operating and the majority of residents return home and crank up their air conditioning,” notes Johnson.
This demand-side management is at the heart of smart-grid technology, says Johnson. It will become really important in 5 or 10 years when most of us might be driving a plug-in hybrid vehicle, argues Johnson. “If you have the ability to plug in your vehicle when you return from work, send energy back up the grid, and then program your system to recharge your vehicle overnight when costs and associated carbon emissions are lower, the entire energy distribution system benefits from adequate and even flows of power—and you as a consumer benefit from cost savings.” Without this smart-grid technology, the scenario is much different. Everyone returns from work, plugs in his or her vehicle, and completely overtaxes the system during a time of peak demand. Suddenly your green-car solution becomes an energy consumption nightmare, explains Johnson.
Part of the center's research will include developing a demonstration project—a functioning smart minigrid. The center's one-megawatt pilot project will be crucial for testing control equipment to ensure that the technologies developed are scalable, from local communities to regional networks of power supply, says Johnson. “The end result of a new energy grid based on smarter distribution of power between numerous entities will be an overall energy system that is more reliable and vastly more efficient.”
The center describes these efforts as developing an “Internet for energy”—essentially employing IT to fundamentally redesign how people use energy, says Johnson. “The technology and design needed to develop a smart grid will be evolutionary, much like the Internet, which went from dial-up to high-speed wired connectivity to wireless,” explains Johnson. “This is a long-term endeavor in which an initial smart grid will become a smarter grid, and so on.”
In hand with new energy technology is the need for a new business model, stresses Johnson. “As long as this remains a research activity, it runs the risk of financial barrier.” To that end, the center's staff will partner with business schools, economists, and industry to transition valuable research findings into applications as a way to stimulate the growth and adoption of smart-grid technologies.
Re-engineering the World
Not only the nation's energy path, but also the country's entire built infrastructure is poised to benefit from engineering approaches with a sustainable bent. Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania, has developed an interdisciplinary master's degree in sustainable engineering, available for enrollment in spring 2010. The program introduces students to the broader issues of sustainability through a series of core courses and allows them to pursue a specialty track in alternative energy, water management, sustainable environments, or a related focus of their own creation. Faculty from all departments—mechanical, civil, electrical, and chemical engineering—have been involved in developing core courses, which are also open to non-engineering majors.
From a practical standpoint, Villanova's engineering students are getting hands-on experience in the renovation of a recent dorm. On the front end, students have researched design requirements and specification for components such as solar photovoltaics and geothermal pumps for offsetting some of the building's heating and cooling loads. On the back end, students will have data available for ongoing projects comparing carbon emissions and assessing cost savings and efficiencies of building systems.
“One theme that will shape our curriculum and the way we train students going forward is emphasizing the need to think about life-cycle systems,” says Alfonso Ortega, Villanova's college of engineering associate dean for graduate studies and research. Ortega asserts that engineers have a critical role to play in building a green economy.
Yet, while engineers are trained to design systems, they don't always think beyond the parameters of their own particular system. “Sustainable engineering requires that we pay attention to the cost of everything we do, from the point of energy consumption to the lasting imprint it leaves on the environment,” says Ortega. To push forward on that front, the college is launching a center for sustainable engineering as the locus for research into multiple facets of sustainability including and beyond engineering to encompass economics, ethics, and law.
Green Business Schools
At the College of the Atlantic (COA), Bar Harbor, Maine, students have always been encouraged to view the world as a system. Regardless of their individual curricular paths, all graduates earn a bachelor's degree in human ecology. That's because the college was founded on an educational philosophy that students should understand the connections between people and their environment—whether studying art, education, public policy, or business—so they can take the skills and knowledge they gain to address the world's environmental and social challenges.
“Forty years ago, that may have seemed like a radical idea, but at this time of global economic crisis and disillusionment with so much of what has happened on Wall Street, the concept is more relevant than ever,” says Jay Friedlander, Sharpe-McNally Chair of COA's Green and Socially Responsible Business program. “I think more people understand that we have a real opportunity to reshape and rebuild and restructure how we live and work. With so many avenues opening up for green-sector jobs, we need leaders of companies who understand our fundamental connections with the environment and who can create a culture that promotes healthy relationships within communities where everyone can prosper.”
As former chief operating officer of the organic and natural fast-food restaurant group, O'Naturals Inc., Friedlander has firsthand experience as a green entrepreneur. He also earned his MBA from the sustainability-focused F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College, Babson Park, Massachusetts. That was a decade ago, before the buzz surrounding sustainability caught hold within the business curriculum, notes Friedlander.
And, there is an undeniable buzz about green business today. A recent article in Business Week discussed the rise in green MBA programs, noting that sustainability has become a proven recruitment angle for institutions with business programs. The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business hosted a sustainability conference for business schools in July, asserting on its Web site that: “Sustainability is no longer just a marketing buzzword-it's a necessary business approach in a rapidly changing economy. And the movement begins at the business school level.”
The trend bears out with regard to student interest. A recent survey by Net Impact and the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education found that nearly 80 percent of the 1,850 graduate business school students surveyed from more than 80 business programs desire more sustainability- and corporate responsibility–focused content in their studies. The survey was conducted in November 2008 to gauge students' opinions about their career paths, their specific programs of study, the economy, and the relationship between business and environmental and social issues. Ninety percent attributed a focus on short-term results as a contributing factor to the global financial crisis, and 56 percent strongly agreed that business schools should include a stronger focus on teaching financial models that consider long-term social impacts. While 88 percent of respondents believed the for-profit sector has a role to play in addressing environmental and social issues, fewer than one third thought that corporations today are actually working toward bettering society. More than half (57 percent) responded that they are rethinking career objectives in light of the recent financial crisis.
A higher value being placed on sustainability goes both ways. A recent survey by the National Environmental Education Foundation found that 65 percent of respondents value environmental and sustainability knowledge in job candidates. Seventy-eight percent say this knowledge will increase in importance as a hiring factor during the next five years, in part because more businesses understand that environmentally educated employees can help improve the bottom line. The survey's 1,354 respondents represented a number of fields, including government, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses in 20 industry sectors.
While more graduate schools of business are gearing programs toward green entrepreneurship, COA is one of only a handful of institutions currently offering a green undergraduate business curriculum. Development of the program has been under way since 2004, when the college began consulting with alumni, students, and business leaders to understand market needs for promoting sustainability. “Our focus is on educating students in how to create a new paradigm in which social, environmental, and business forces are all working together,” says Friedlander. “We still teach the hard business skills of marketing and finance, but we also look at how to build strong environmental and social policies into business plans and practices.”
A capstone course allows COA students not only to write a business plan but to test their ideas. Thanks to a $144,000 grant received last summer, the college has officially opened its business “hatchery”—physical space and support services that students can use to launch their business ideas during their senior year and continue to use for a full year following graduation, says Friedlander. He attributes the growing interest within the academic business community for green- and socially responsible-focused coursework as broad recognition that sustainability can yield a competitive advantage. And, it's not only small companies that produce organic foods and natural personal care like Stonyfield Farm and Tom's of Maine that stand to gain in the marketplace, says Friedlander. Corporate giants like General Electric and Wal-Mart Stores have come to understand the efficiencies of reducing waste and greening their business practices.
“The hope is that we can lay a foundation for youth to begin thinking much earlier about future careers in engineering and research.”
Mark Johnson, North Carolina State University
The push for a green business curriculum at COA holds fast to the college's core belief that interactions between people and their environment can change the world. “What is too often missing from the focus of most MBA or undergraduate business degree programs is, in a word, impact,” says Friedlander. “The understanding that what we do in the business world can create a ripple effect—for good or bad—is where we start.”
Pink Slips to Green Jobs
For many out-of-work Americans across the country with ready skills but no immediate job prospects, transition may be the operative word. The slump in the automotive, manufacturing, and construction sectors seems ironic at a time when emerging industries like wind and solar energy are scrambling for technicians. The need for trained electricians and mechanics who already understand hydraulics systems and energy loads and who are willing to learn how to apply their skills in new ways, such as wiring solar panels and maintaining wind turbine generators, may provide a direct path to re-employment for many, notes Miner.
“Our current situation calls for a quick design of programs that can meet the needs of industry now while also looking ahead to long-term education needs,” says the American Wind Energy Association's Miner. “This may mean getting more institutions to develop module programs, perhaps month-long intensive training to get workers into these jobs, but then also build in avenues for them to return to complete a full-length program while they remain in the workforce,” explains Miner.
Turbine technicians and operators aren't the only wind industry jobs in demand, notes Miner. AWEA is also engaged with higher education to step up four-year and graduate degree programs in energy management, project development, international business development, and community planning and public policy—the whole gamut of skills required to site and plan projects and work directly with utilities, municipalities, and local citizens for approval and implementation.
In addition to worker shortfalls, another significant hindrance to wind energy production has been the lack of a steady supply chain, says Miner. A huge opportunity exists, and is beginning to take shape, to build a manufacturing base in the United States to support turbine construction, notes Miner. With 8,000 different parts required to build one of these massive towers, resulting demand is certain to generate steady work. Miner points to facilities in Michigan and Ohio that have already switched from making automotive parts to manufacturing bolts and other components required for turbine construction.
Education that is flexible is key for building a green workforce, which at least initially may require as much retraining of displaced workers as it does educating those who aspire to green employment from the get-go. Institutions must be ready to adapt their curricula for teaching traditional disciplines through the lens of sustainability, while also shaping their learning programs in ways that address sharp differences in education needs and learning styles.
Villanova is responding with a certificate program for those who wish to take only the core courses of its sustainable engineering program, an option that should have strong appeal for working professional engineers who need to get up to speed with emerging technologies and approaches. Ortega also wants to fast-track the project of making the entire engineering curriculum fully available online as a distance learning option. “Right now our part-time program is three times larger than our full-time program,” notes Ortega. “One challenge for us as educators is to make our programs flexible enough to be taken by a variety of students and those re-entering the workforce or changing careers.”
Another challenge is getting the word out about green career paths. AWEA is pushing hard on the front end to make inroads with the K–12 education community to communicate to middle and high school students that exciting opportunities exist within the renewable energy sector, says Miner. “Few students are currently receiving information from career counselors about jobs in this industry because these jobs are so new.”
While a master's degree program and undergraduate concentration in renewable energy systems are key educational components of NCSU's FREEDM Systems Center, researchers have also developed a middle school curriculum and partnered with middle and high schools to give younger students and their teachers exposure to energy research. “The hope is that we can lay a foundation for youth to begin thinking much earlier about future careers in engineering and research,” says Johnson.
Educators in the Sacramento area are likewise working to remove the barriers among K–12, community and technical colleges, and four-year-degree granting and research institutions so that students can move seamlessly on a concerted pathway in pursuit of green careers, says Los Rios Community College District's Harris. “Whether scientists or solar repair technicians, students ought to be able to get interested in these careers at an early age.” That said, it can still be a tough sell to some parents and students who may have concern about moving into professional fields that are not yet fully developed, notes Harris. “I also think most are now convinced this talk about green jobs is not a fad and that these jobs will be good-paying positions for the long term and will represent a rapid growth sector of the economy.”
Despite worker shortfalls in some sectors, Harris believes higher education is ahead of the curve in laying the groundwork to train workers for the coming green economy. “As an industry, we've been out front, first with experimenting on our own campuses with greening initiatives, and more recently with our curriculum,” argues Harris. “Our primary role now is to continue to do the science and prepare the workforce.”
Money for Science
Workforce preparation requires first attracting people to your profession. “One real irony is that as little as five years ago, there was talk about eliminating electrical engineering programs at many institutions because of lack of interest,” says Johnson. He is heartened by an influx of younger faculty now joining the ranks, many of whom attribute their interest in the profession to new opportunities for research in energy.
Ortega predicts that the next scientific breakthroughs will in fact come in the field of energy. The billions of federal dollars likely to be funneled to institution research either through stimulus funding or other budgetary appropriations will certainly advance development of new technologies and products.
Prior to joining Villanova's faculty, Ortega was on staff at the National Science Foundation, where he witnessed a similar infusion of funding for scientific research in areas such as nanotechnology. “The public needs to better understand what it means to fund fundamental research,” says Ortega. “As a society, we always have problems we need to solve. Research produces the many great ideas from which transformative devices and processes emerge that have the capacity to change the world—things like transistors and MRI [magnetic resonance imaging] technology.”
Something else that should not be lost is how one field of breakthrough research contributes to the next, says Ortega. One application influenced by nanotechnology research that is now in its final stages of testing involves targeted drug delivery, in which specific drugs can be encapsulated and, once ingested, will attach only to certain cells that need to be destroyed, explains Ortega. “Such innovations in nanomaterials and processes might some day be useful to apply to energy challenges, such as development of more efficient photovoltaics or material systems for carbon sequestration.”
Beyond funding, other federal action could likewise expedite the transition to a green economy. Currently, wind energy has a long way to go to achieve 20 percent of total U.S. energy generation by 2030. That target represents one scenario established several years ago in response to conversations between AWEA leadership and Bush administration Department of Energy officials about what would be economically feasible, says Miner. “We determined this benchmark based on the high-quality wind sites on land that we had already identified and on our research of what the existing system could handle,” says Miner. “The actual capacity could be much greater, especially as we explore offshore opportunities and a new transmission grid.”
That target might also shift based on the fate of a national standard for 25 percent renewable electricity by 2025. Currently, 29 states have set their own renewable energy standards, providing impetus for investment in renewable energy on a statewide basis. Miner is hopeful that a federal renewable energy standard could be enacted this year. If it is, that would give businesses much greater certainty about investing in manufacturing to support a long-term commitment to renewable energy, potentially putting tens of thousands of Americans back to work. In fact, AWEA projections based on its 20-percent-by-2030 goal suggest that more than 500,000 jobs can be supported directly and indirectly by the industry, factoring in construction, manufacturing, and operations and maintenance.
No Train, No Gain
No doubt the American economy and the nation's workers have hit more than a rough patch with this most recent economic recession. As a country, we've reached a crossroads, with weighty decisions about which direction to go and where to invest for the future. The transition will be painful. Jobs that re-emerge may not look the same as they did before. There is no denying, for instance, that the automotive industry—a mainstay of American manufacturing pride for decades—must green up its act if it wants to survive. The upside is that the growth of green jobs in particular has the potential to provide real and lasting economic lift as workers adapt existing skills to new products and processes.
In July, President Obama unveiled a proposal for a $12 billion “American Graduation Initiative” aimed at helping community colleges, in particular, prepare millions of individuals for the kinds of jobs that can help turn around the U.S. economy, including new opportunities in clean energy. That same month, more than 150 college and university presidents signed a letter to U.S. Senate leadership requesting support for a plan that would set aside 1 percent of proceeds from carbon emissions allowances under proposed cap-and-trade legislation to spend for education in the fields of clean energy, sustainability, and environmental literacy. The “1 percent for education” initiative could potentially generate as much as $1 billion.
For any of the major initiatives the Obama administration has set as its policy priorities—health care, education, and energy—higher education has a significant and necessary role to play in raising the country out of its economic doldrums. Whether pursuing medical IT or ramping up renewable energy production, enhanced education and training opportunities will be required at every level. At this juncture, colleges and universities have a great challenge and an equally great opportunity to help fill the knowledge and skills gaps of American workers and to collaborate with industry and government to build the pipeline of expertise required for a smarter, greener economy.
As Johnson asserts: “The education of future workers is real stimulus. It's the ultimate shovel-ready project.”
KARLA HIGNITE, Kaiserslautern, Germany, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.