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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.