Back to School: Workforce Education for The Clean Energy Economy

The TakeAway: Clean energy economy will be built not just with bricks, but brains.

It’s back-to-school time, this day after Labor Day, when education and jobs intersect on the calendar.  On the jobs front, President Obama yesterday announced a $50 billion plan for rebuilding the nation’s transportation infrastructure and reboot the economy by creating new jobs.  With all eyes on unemployment figures (9.6 percent in August) and mid-term elections, the President proposed generating “competition and innovation that gives us the best bang for the buck” through an “infrastructure bank” that pools private money with public investment.  To assess the viability of this new initiative, we can look at a similar public – private stimulus package that’s a hit with displaced workers: students and professionals throughout the country have enrolled in new clean energy programs supported in part by $500 million in Department of Labor funds aimed at retooling the nation’s workforce.

The clean energy sector will increase fourfold in the next decade, according to a recent Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory report funded by the Energy Department.  To gear up for this growth, the nation’s community colleges and universities have established new certificate and degree programs in environmental and energy management with funding from competitive Federal grants, including non-stimulus money.  Students – many seeking to kick-start their careers – are flocking to these programs.

A leader of this pack: Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, which since 1980 has offered programs in energy management, renewable energy, and water conservation.  Many of Lane’s students lost jobs in the aerospace and computer industries, and are reorienting themselves for the clean energy economy.  Lane also hosts the Northwest Energy Education Institute (NEEI), which recently announced a National Sustainable Building Advisor Program.  Online options help assure affordability and access for students from all over the country, and graduates are in great demand.

The New England Clean Energy Council (NECEC) promotes similar goals, with several academic institutions as members, although the bulk of NECEC’s members come from the private sector—including venture capital investors.  This semester, UMass Boston launched four clean energy programs, ranging from graduate and undergraduate certificates to an MBA concentration and undergraduate minor.  UMB’s College of Management (COM) and Department of Environment, Earth, and Ocean Sciences (EEOS) collaborate in the joint venture.  UMB joins roughly two dozen 4-year schools throughout the country with degree programs in clean energy, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study.

“Clean energy educational programs, by imparting relevant expertise and skills and connecting with regional businesses, will contribute to employment, economic development, a cleaner environment, and lower energy costs,” says David Levy, Professor and Chair of UMB’s Department of Marketing and Management and Director of the school’s new Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Regional Competitiveness (SERC).  “We have the chance to create communities that are sustainable environmentally, economically, and socially.”

If Obama’s transportation infrastructure project can harness the same momentum as this clean energy / education initiative, we can look forward to sustainable mobility solutions that also create jobs – a development we’ll continue to cover.

Of course, the transition to a clean energy economy is not an American problem:  it’s a global problem.  We’re better served if our business, political leaders, and educational leaders approach it with the same zeal as China and other nations that invest in human capital and technology.  That’s a lesson we all can learn.

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One Response to Back to School: Workforce Education for The Clean Energy Economy

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