EDUCATION:

Clean-energy programs booming at community colleges

For many students enrolling in alternative energy programs at community colleges, it's not about some greater environmental ethos. It's about jobs.

That message has resounded at Lansing Community College, about 90 miles northwest of Detroit, where some students are former employees of now-shuttered General Motors Co. plants. Enrollment in the school's alternative energy programs has spiked this year, accounting for the campus's largest growth area. Over the last year alone, the college has outfitted 75 to 100 former GM employees -- mostly from factory lines -- with alternative energy skills.

"It's a growth area in that where workers previously made ball bearings for a Cadillac, now they can do it for a wind turbine," said George Berghorn, who oversees the college's environment, design and building technologies department. The school also trains workers to be prepared to work with solar power and geothermal energy and do home audits.

Nationally, community college enrollments have been ticking upward during the economic slump, as schools and workers look to invest their time and money where the jobs might be. "Though community colleges are not the only avenue for training workers in alternative energy, they can turn around workers very quickly -- sometimes in just a couple semesters with a certificate program," Berghorn said.

This fall, Lansing ramped up its alternative energy offerings by introducing four new clean-energy technician certificate programs. Those, coupled with the school's existing associate's degree in alternative energy technology and another certificate offering, are investments that appear to be paying off. Enrollment in alternative energy classes has increased by almost 90 percent since last fall. In the program's first year, it had 12 students. Now, four years later, it has almost 300.

The Michigan junior college is not the only one to successfully boost enrollment for "green" courses. Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts, Santa Fe Community College in New Mexico, and Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., all report substantial increases in their alternative energy programs in recent years.

Santa Fe, for example, enrolled 132 students this fall, compared to 15 in the fall of 2007. Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which founded its alternative energy programs some 30 years ago, has been at capacity for alternative energy offerings for the last two years. The program has had to turn students away, faculty member Debra Rowe said.

"It's an economic fact that during a time of downturn, people turned out of the workforce will want to be busy and want to be doing productive things to improve their competitiveness," said Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow specializing in energy and economics at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. "People go back to school -- especially if you are in a town that lost a plant."

But at Lansing, the growth in alternative energy courses is disproportionate to the school's enrollment increase as a whole. The programs' enrollment is up 89 percent, while the school's overall enrollment is up just 11 percent.

The jobs are out there for alternative energy graduates, Berghorn noted, saying he is not surprised students are flocking to his program. Though Lansing does not have formal numbers, he says that in the last couple of semesters, "close to 100 percent" of his sector's graduates have been able to find work, primarily doing consulting and auditing work in energy efficiency and analysis.

Though community colleges work differently in different regions, the reasons for the growth in this area are closely aligned, advocates say: a response to local need, industry partnerships that steer their decisions and an eye on the future job openings down the line. Federal funding from the stimulus act and other pre-existing governmental grants did not hurt, either.

One Michigan manufacturer, Dowding Industries Inc., talks with Lansing Community College about four times a year about the direction of the industry and the job market. A recent message: Look at renewable energy.

"We had told Lansing that the wind energy market was growing," said Jeff Metts, Dowding's president. He said he told the school a few years ago that there was little training available for wind turbine maintenance and that it would be important. His comments confirmed what the school already knew, so this fall, the college started a wind turbine technician program.

"[Investing in these programs] is a continuing trend across the country, though it happens on different levels on different campuses," said Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. Across the board, she said, the alternative energy sector is one of the largest areas of growth at the schools.

Funding: an 'important signal'

Despite the fact that some junior colleges had cultivated plans to expand their alternative energy programs for several years, Oakland professor Rowe, who is also president of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development, points to policy moves such as allocating American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds toward green job training and renewing federal tax credits for renewable energy last year as growth motivators.

"If you look at the cycle of how long it takes a student to get through a certificate program or [complete] a couple courses, and how long a community college takes to assess its programs to make sure they aren't too far behind or too far ahead of the job market, it's already impacting," Rowe said.

Financial lifelines for green-job training are sprinkled through various programs created by the stimulus, which earmarked more than $80 billion for clean energy. The Department of Labor has oversight of about $500 million of the pot for green job training, and community colleges can apply for some of those funds, often as partners with other organizations or with their state, the department said. Still other federal stimulus dollars are available for training individuals to work on smart grids or weatherization programs.

The Department of Labor announced this week that it had awarded $55 million of its green job training funds. Utah's Salt Lake Community College secured more than $96,000 to shore up its alternative energy offerings and create new certificate programs, and more than a dozen other community colleges tapped some of the $55 million through partnerships with their state or other organizations.

Lansing expects to apply for smart grid training funds from the Department of Energy as part of a consortium of community colleges next month.

Hendricks, who helped draft some of the stimulus language, and went to a community college himself, said that though the federal funds are important in that they send a valuable signal to investors, schools and students about the future playing field, Washington is not leading the way.

"You see much more interest from private businesses, innovators and banks," Hendricks said. "People know that an economy led by innovation and energy is coming."