When careers need reinvention

Innovative collaborations between schools, workforce developers, and industry are helping to educate adult workers for the new jobs communities need.

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    School bus driver Steve Burke performs an efficiency audit at the home of Carol Hayward in South Orleans, Mass.
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HYANNIS, Mass. - When Steve Burke took stock of his career prospects on the sandy peninsula of Cape Cod, Mass., the most promising path he saw was green. His steppingstone to a new line of work? A course on energy efficiency at Cape Cod Community College.

“Driving a school bus, even though it’s rewarding to some degree, it’s basically just going in circles,” says Mr. Burke, a former teacher who had relocated and spent five years in that decidedly yellow job. “I really saw that ... more people were embracing renewable energies…. So I decided to take the initiative and get more education.”

He dived into a series of classes on renewable energies, and last fall, while observing a home energy audit, he connected with a local auditing company that was seeing a spike in demand. Within a few weeks Burke was hired, conducting up to four audits a day with RISE Engineering. “Financially, it’s both more [pay] and more secure than what I’ve had in the past,” he says.

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There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. But Burke wouldn’t have been able to align himself so easily with the new economy had there not been a collaboration building for several years on the Cape among educational institutions, workforce-development officials, and industry groups to prepare people to fill the green jobs on the horizon.

Throughout the country, such innovative partnerships – with community colleges often at the hub – are under way not just in the environmental sector, but also in the life sciences, healthcare, and other fields where job prospects are expected to stay strong or grow, thanks in part to the flow of federal stimulus dollars.

People are flocking to the resulting educational opportunities. Nationally, nearly 4 out of 10 adults are seeking higher education, and of those, a third are “career reinventers” looking to pursue a longstanding interest, according to a national survey this year by the Career College Association in Washington. Career colleges have seen average annual growth of about 10 percent in recent years.

That’s normal during a downturn in the economy, but this time around, CCA president Harris Miller says, “even people who continue to have jobs are fearful that maybe they’re on shaky ground and need to upgrade their skills.”

Yvonne Nolte raised three children and worked as a real estate agent before that sector tanked. Now she’s eyeing jobs at the Callaway Nuclear Plant in Missouri. She’s taking a five-week quality-control class at the University of Missouri in Columbia, which covers basics such as reading blueprints. It should help her get a foot in the door, she says, and then the plant would train her for a particular job. “There will always be a need for more energy,” she says, “and that’s exactly what I was looking for: a career that would see me through retirement and possibly beyond.”

With a coming wave of retirements and the potential for thousands of new jobs if plans for several nuclear plants go forward, “we’ve seen a tremendous growth in the number of programs ... to prepare the next generation of workers,” says Carol Berrigan, senior director of industry infrastructure at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), which represents the industry in Washington.

After helping to boost the number of nuclear engineers coming out of colleges, NEI has recently turned its attention to building up the pipeline of technical workers coming out of community colleges. Just four years ago, there were only a handful of nuclear programs at community colleges; now there are nearly 50, Ms. Berrigan says.

IN NORTH CAROLINA, major retraining efforts started just over a decade ago as massive numbers of textile and furniture manufacturing jobs shifted to cheaper labor markets abroad. The state has since become a leader in biosciences, and the North Carolina Community College System (NCCS) has played a vital role in collaborating with businesses and universities to “reskill” the workforce.

Since the 1950s, North Carolina leaders have seen “the pivotal role of education strategies to further economic prosperity,” says NCCS president Scott Ralls.

Theresa Lengner, a native of rural Whiteville, N.C., worked in textile manufacturing for 10 years before the plant in her town closed in 1999. The local employment office helped her enroll in nearby Southeastern Community College, and by 2003 she had earned her associate’s degree in environmental science technology. Now she’s a lab technician at the college, but she’s still pursuing higher education. She takes classes part time at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, toward a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

During these economic times, “everyone gets a little nervous,” Ms. Lengner says, “but I feel like I’m better prepared now than I was 10 years ago to maintain my job, or, if the worst were to happen, to go out and position myself in another job of the same level.”

A former high school dropout, she also feels good about pursuing education in and of itself: “Making the sacrifices and working hard for that degree ... for me has just been a very proud thing.... It also shows through your work, and employers see that.”

MATCHING HIGHER EDUCATION to future needs isn’t easy. Many community colleges don’t have the expertise or funding to research and set up new programs to train people for green jobs, for instance. And there’s little agreement about what the skill standards should be for such jobs, said Marcy Drummond, vice president for workforce and economic development at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, during a recent online seminar about education for the green economy.

Although the Solar Energies Industry Association predicts that 110,000 solar-related jobs will be created by the end of next year, very little data is available on a regional or local level, Ms. Drummond said. There’s also a “risk of oversaturation.... If everybody in a particular region develops a solar [education] program, there may not be enough occupations and jobs out there to support all the programs.”

That’s why partnerships between educational and workforce development institutions are so critical, Drummond and others say.
Even if it’s not completely clear where the job market is heading, though, people on Cape Cod have found that upgrading skills and offering greener services to customers can accelerate demand.

The community college courses in renewable energy are so popular that they have expanded and still have to turn people away. To help meet pent-up demand among workers in the building trades, the Cape Cod Economic Development Council applied for a state grant to offer free six-week classes in such subjects as energy efficiency and how to install photovoltaic roof panels.

With the current decline in construction, it’s too early to measure job-creation impacts, says council director Daniel Dray, but other benefits are already noticeable. “When [class participants] go out to a traditional job, they now have a brand-new awareness of building science.... They are able to generate work for themselves and at the same time reduce energy demand,” he says.

Tygue Reed owns a plumbing business and is taking the short class on installing solar thermal water systems. “This is what I really want to jump on ... for space heating and domestic hot water,” he says just before the evening class at the back of the Complete Home Concepts design store in Hyannis. He’s been hearing from builders about projects involving a lot of solar features, and expects to be able to work with them soon. “Heating has become a problem for a lot of people, because oil prices are unstable.... Nothing will be able to beat what you can get from nature,” he says with a smile.

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