Friday, November 27, 2009

Renewable Energy Classes Fill Up Quickly

Ryan Light expected to get just 15 students this semester for his community college classes in Bettendorf on installing wind and solar power equipment. Instead, 40 signed up, and enrollment since has grown to 45.

It's not just because he has the perfect name for an instructor on power generation. It's the prospect of good-paying jobs - starting salary about $40,000 - in a down economy.

Community colleges across Iowa are trying to fill the demand for green jobs by starting training programs in wind energy and biofuels and revising their curricula in automotive repair and building

Twenty of Light's students at Scott Community College have jobs lined up, and an Illinois company is interested in 25 more.

"Our industry needs trained people," said Light, who set aside his own business installing small-scale wind generators to start the program at Scott.

Iowa Lakes Community College has 165 students enrolled in a program preparing workers for large-scale wind generation. Des Moines Area Community College has 60 students in a similar program in Ankeny.

The wind industry "is a big growth area, they pay well, and there are not a lot of programs out there," said Scott Ocken, DMACC's dean of industry and technology.

At Council Bluffs, Iowa Western Community College has 19 students studying wind-industry management. The school has overhauled its automotive technician program to train students to maintain hybrid vehicles and revised classes in construction trades to train students on energy-efficient measures.

Programs in biofuels often tend to be smaller, reflecting the problems in the ethanol and biodiesel industries, college officials say.

"The biofuels economy dried up, so there hasn't been much going on," said Jack Thompson, a professor coordinator at DMACC's campus in Carroll, where a program on biomass processes was shelved.

But gearing up for this sector has raised concerns with presidents of the community colleges: They want to produce enough trained workers to attract new businesses but they need to avoid training more workers than there will be jobs.

To better coordinate their training programs, the colleges are hoping to commission a study of the state's job and educational needs in the energy sector.

"We're concerned that the jobs are lagging behind the production of workers," said Pat Keir, chancellor of the Eastern Iowa Community College District, which includes Scott. "We have to be careful and not climb on the renewable energy bandwagon without assessing how many will be needed."

But one of the challenges the colleges will face is that the renewable energy sector is heavily dependent on federal policies and it's not clear what those will be.

Climate legislation being considered in Congress would increase demand for wind and solar power by increasing the capping of greenhouse gas emissions and requiring utilities to produce increasing amounts of renewable electricity.

"I really hope they do" pass a climate bill, Light said. "It's going to help our business a lot."

The uncertainty about where the energy field is headed isn't missed by some of the students. Light knows of two in his classes, both laid off from the local Alcoa plant, who are on the fence about getting into the renewable energy field.

"If Alcoa rehires again I think they'll be out of the program and back in the factory. It's safe."


No comments: