Greening Wisconsin’s jobs economy

Posted on Feb 4, 2010 :: Insight on Business.
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A report released today by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS) and the Apollo Alliance, says that while Wisconsin has one of the best technical college training systems in the country and is better prepared than most to train workers for new “green” jobs, the existing workforce development infrastructure in the state needs to be better integrated and “scaled up” to meet the demands of a green economy. The Apollo Alliance is a national business, labor and environmental coalition focused on clean energy.

Gov. Jim Doyle’s office recently estimated that the emerging green economy will create 15,000 new jobs by 2025. That seems a reasonable and even conservative estimate, “whether you are talking about induced jobs or direct jobs, but we know there is tremendous potential,” says Sarah White, a senior associate at COWS and co-author of the report, Mapping Green Career Pathways: Job Training Opportunities and Infrastructure in Wisconsin.

According to the report, existing training programs can provide much of the infrastructure for a robust green workforce development system. Wind, solar energy, biofuels and energy efficiency programs at New North technical colleges like Lakeshore Tech, Fox Valley Tech, Moraine Park and Northeast Wisconsin Technical College were cited in the report as essential building blocks for a green career pathways system.

Gaps remain to be filled, however, according to the report’s authors, who recommend filling those gaps with “bridge programs” that integrate apprenticeship programs, technical college education, occupational training and adult basic education programs. They also recommend more interagency cooperation to make efficient use of the funds and programs available.

The state’s workforce development boards and technical colleges have already been working together to make maximize use of job training and retaining funds, according to the many of those who support the report's conclusions. 

Conor Smyth, policy advisor with the Wisconsin Technical College System, and JoAnna Richard, deputy secretary for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, agree that more needs to be done to strengthen the workforce training and development in the state, and both are optimistic that it can and will be done.

Richard notes that her department has a request for $13 million in U.S. Department of Labor emergency job training grants and Smyth adds that he’s hopeful that the American Graduation Initiative will make its way through Congress this year, providing more support for worker training programs in the state’s education systems.

Richard acknowledges that the state’s workforce development boards are currently stretched thin on training funds for displaced workers, but she agrees with Smyth that whether or not additional funds arrive, the state has resources to better provide green jobs training.

“Certainly we could do it on a larger scale if we have more resources available, but I do think we have the resources available to continue this work," says Smyth. "We’re trying to take the existing resources we do have available and align them to support career pathways. This work just has to move forward regardless of the funding decisions that are made."

“The good part is that the workforce development boards and technical colleges are working together to see how we can leverage funding better, to be more effective and efficient in the way we deliver programs,” says Richard.

Jim Golembeski, executive director of the Bay Area Workforce Development Board, says  NWTC’s sustainable practices program is a good example of how the region’s technical colleges are developing targeted training opportunities.

NWTC has developed certificate programs in solar energy and biofuels and is planning to begin associate degrees in energy management technology and in solar energy technology next fall. FVTC has programs for environmental management systems and emerging technologies.  Lakeshore Tech has one of the country’s few degree programs in wind energy technology. Moraine Park Technical College has a water quality technician diploma program, as well as a bridge program that combines basic adult education with manufacturing skills. The program, developed in partnership with the Southeast Wisconsin Workforce Development Board, is targeted to low-skill displaced workers, including those with limited English language ability.

Golembeski says the issue is "bigger than specific green jobs – building windmills or solar panels. We all need to understand the fundamental changes that are taking place in business today and see that sustainability cuts across occupational settings and job descriptions and becomes part of everything we do." 

“Green jobs can mean a lot of things,” says Marcia Arndt, dean of manufacturing at Moraine Park. “We’ve been very involved in the concept of career pathways and we think there will be a lot more developments along those lines throughout the technical college system.” 

“This is really a conversation that a lot of us are having in education,” says Amy Kox, manager of renewable energy technologies at NWTC. “It’s not a matter of creating new programs, but how do we integrate sustainability into our existing curriculum?”

The full Mapping Green Career Pathways report is available at ApolloAlliance.org and at COWS.org.

 - Rick Berg