How suburban colleges are helping students get jobs in growing green economy

  • A worker installs a solar panel on a ground-mounted display at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

    A worker installs a solar panel on a ground-mounted display at the College of Lake County in Grayslake. Courtesy of College of Lake County

  • Workers install solar panels on the roof of Lincoln School in Mundelein. Students looking to get into growing green fields such as installing solar panels have options outside of local community colleges.

      Workers install solar panels on the roof of Lincoln School in Mundelein. Students looking to get into growing green fields such as installing solar panels have options outside of local community colleges. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2020

 
 
Updated 5/9/2022 6:23 AM

Programs that train people to install and maintain solar panels, electric car chargers, wind turbines and other skilled green jobs are hard to find at suburban community colleges. But some local colleges provide students other ways to be part of the growing green economy, education experts say.

With the cost of green energy technology coming down and the appetite for switching from gas and oil-based energy growing, there now are around 9 million green jobs in the U.S. That number is set to rise to 24 million over the next 10 years, according to a recent report by the nonprofit news organization Working Nation.

 

Green jobs are those that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment, conserve natural resources, and involve workers making their establishments' processes more environmentally friendly, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There are a few certification programs at local community colleges that can help students get a green job.

Glen Ellyn-based College of DuPage and Elgin Community College offer a renewable energy technology certificate program and College of Lake County in Grayslake offers an alternative energy technology certificate program, either of which could help students get jobs installing solar panels. McHenry County College in Crystal Lake and Harper College in Palatine do not offer such certificate programs.

While suburban community colleges don't have many ways to directly prepare students for green jobs, at least one is considering it.

At Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, which currently does not have any degree or certificate programs focused on green technologies, academic leaders recognize the growing need for skilled workers in these industries and are considering options for future programs, spokesman Stephen Butera said.

Most green jobs don't require special certifications, though -- a majority require more common training, such as for becoming an engineer, attorney or truck driver, the Working Nation report found.

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An example of people with traditional jobs being part of the green economy can be found at the CLC's Grayslake campus.

CLC Sustainability Manager David Husemoller said the college contracted with 18 companies to install the nearly 5,000 solar panels at the Grayslake campus. Though all 18 companies were necessary for the project's completion, only one staffed employees trained to do the actual solar panel installation. The other 17 still were crucial to the green project's completion.

Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago's School of Environmental Sustainability, calls traditional jobs that are part of green energy projects "indirect green jobs."

"There are a lot of ways to plug into the green economy," Michaud said.

When it comes to training students for indirect green jobs community colleges and universities do a great job, he added.

Often people can get the right credentials outside of traditional education structures to get direct green jobs, such as installing and operating many new green technologies, Michaud said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For example, Michaud cited Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate, which runs a clean energy jobs accelerator program that prepares individuals and contractor businesses to build a career or a business in the clean energy economy.

The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, the largest renewable energy organization that certifies people for direct green jobs such as solar panel technician, gives people the option of skipping the classroom as long as they do six months of related work with a certified company.

And direct green jobs pay well, according to Robert Pollin, an economics professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

He told CNBC the average salary for a job in wind energy is $80,300, for solar energy the average is $74,500, and for those who retrofit old buildings with more efficient technology, the average is $64,500.

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