Green Workforce Technology Training

Education program focuses on solar, thermal and wind energy.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

In 2010, Tri-Point Junior High School in Piper City, Ill. received a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to install a solar photovoltaic system.  When the administrators at Kankakee Community College’s Project Revamp heard about it, they offered to provide all the equipment wholesale, and have their students install it for free.

They were in a unique position to do so, as Project Revamp is a training program in renewable energy systems for future electricians. It was a win-win situation: the future electricians received hands-on, real-world experience in building a solar photovoltaic electrical system, while the junior high school ended up with a 25 percent larger system for its grant money.

Recognizing the growing field in renewable energies such as solar and wind--and the need for qualified electricians with expertise in those areas--the college developed a new curriculum that incorporates renewable energy systems training into its traditional electronics technology education.

“The energy crisis is going to continue, and it is real,” says Tim Welhelm, professor of electrical technology at the college and coordinator of the program. “We need to create a different energy paradigm, and we need to start training the workforce so they will be prepared when the renewable energy jobs open up.”

Project Revamp began in 2008 as a National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education program, and received a $149,085 NSF grant to get the program underway. 

“Green workforce training is an important part of the new market transformation to renewable energy technology,” says Bert Jacobson, the school’s dean of environmental and institutional sustainability. “The new market transformation is a buzzword that signals our need to switch from non-renewable fossil fuels, like oil and coal, to renewable sources and sustainable technology.”

To be sure, “coal is going to be around for a while, but we have to start now, so that, in 30 years, we will have alternatives up and ready to take its place,” Jacobson adds. “If we do nothing and wait until 2050, we’ll be dead in the water. Community colleges are ideally suited to train local workers for these emerging green jobs. We are in the community, and that’s the stuff we do.”

Furthermore, it had become increasingly clear before the program began that the need for electricians with renewable energy skills was great, particularly during a time when enrollment in traditional electronics technology programs was dropping steadily.

Several years ago, for example, Kankakee Community College’s electronics technology program had only two students, and the school was preparing to shut it down after they graduated.

Today, however, Kankakee Community College has more than two dozen students enrolled in its program, and they are taking one or more of the college’s new and specialized courses in renewable energy, including solar photovoltaic technology, solar thermal technology and small wind energy technology.

“Not all, but most renewable energy technology is the realm of the tradesman,” Wilhelm says. “And the tradesman that it’s mostly in the realm of is the electrical technician.”

Thus, the curriculum is based on the premise that renewable energy technicians also must know about electricity and electrical technology.  Currently, many technicians who install solar panels, or who service wind turbines, do not always have electrical technology knowledge.

“What makes our program different is that we just don’t teach them renewable energy skills--they have to be electricians,” Jacobson says.  “The country needs to have electricians with the skills to do these other jobs. We are training people to have a mix of skills that will enable them to get a job anywhere and do any of these renewable energy jobs.”

The new curriculum consists of four renewable energy courses that focus on solar, thermal, and wind energy technologies, and include laboratory activities, field trips, work-based educational experiences, and assessment instruments. When they graduate, the technicians will be fully qualified to install, maintain, and repair renewable energy technologies.