Gateway Community College in New Haven had great expectations for the inaugural term of its Center for a Sustainable Future, with 10 continuing education courses from hands-on solar training in a brand-new lab to certification as a sustainable building adviser.
But so far, only two of the courses have enough people enrolled to make them viable, and they’re only about half full. Similar programs at other community colleges also are under-subscribed. That has educators and others worried that when the state energy legislation passed in June begins creating jobs, there won’t be a local workforce sufficient to fill them.
“This area is going to grow; we know this for sure,” said David Cooper, the director of the Center at Gateway. “If we’re going to realize these ambitious economic growth goals, it will be important for us to create a training pipeline.”
The problem speaks to continuing education’s unique role in workforce training through non-credit education. It involves such issues as how continuing ed is and is not subsidized, the availability of student funding programs, and the confusing jumble of worker training programs in the state.
Gateway, Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury all are facing less-than-full-classes as they open new facilities. In the last couple of years, the three schools became Connecticut’s participants in the Photovoltaic Instructor Training Network, run through the U.S. Department of Energy and coordinated in the northeast region by Hudson Valley Community College in New York.
The schools received funding, about $70,000 each from DOE through Hudson Valley and another $100,000 each from what at the time was the Clean Energy Fund to build labs for solar training with facilities like roofs and equipment for students to install and uninstall solar panels.
Each of the schools also devised a coordinated series of courses that, like Gateway, try to anticipate the workforce needs of the programs prescribed in the energy legislation.
At Three Rivers, which used the funding for a mobile lab, this fall’s record number of offerings, most of which start later this month and next, include basic “boot camps” in solar electric, solar thermal and solar sales, various green building courses, sustainability training and even brownfield redevelopment strategies. Tuition ranges from $50 for single seminars to about $2,500. Signups have been sluggish.
“Funding is an issue. Without the end result being clear right now, people are hesitant to sign up. Whenever we can provide the funding, people do sign up,” said Jessie McCoy, a continuing ed program coordinator. “Are we at our perfect place right now? No we’re not. But we’d be irresponsible to not offer these classes.”
Cost also is an issue at Gateway, where courses generally run around $200 to $700 but can reach as high as $3,000.
“Continuing education in general, people just don’t have the discretionary income to afford our courses,” Cooper said.
“Our interest in this area was the projections that there would be jobs available in the solar industry for the future and our goal is to make sure we have a qualified workforce,” said Laurie Hornbecker, who is In charge of non-credit programming at Naugatuck.
Enrollment is low right now–not enough yet to run some of the courses. Hornbecker said marketing is one problem: There’s not enough money to get the word out.
But another issue, cited by everyone, is concern that training in these fields won’t guarantee a job. Even though there’s great promise that jobs will be created through the many programs outlined in the energy legislation, many aren’t available yet.
“Catch-22, chicken-and-egg, whatever you want to call it,” Hornbecker said. “Right now in this economy people are not looking to invest in something that is going to be in the future; they need a jobs now.
“I find this in all our workforce programs. The ones that are popular are the ones where there are jobs at the end.”
Further complicating the situation are the existing funding and job training mechanisms.
Under the federal Workforce Investment Act, funding for displaced workers in non-credit programs is available based on certain criteria – chief among them, whether the student can be placed in a job in a certain period of time.
The problem in the clean energy and sustainability fields is that the fields are new with jobs still being almost literally invented. Skills may be useful, but jobs can be a ways off.
In the solar field in particular, the last couple of years have been brutal for job creation because Connecticut’s solar incentives had all but run out. That’s expected to change when the state’s new zero- and low-emission energy development programs begin next year. But for the most part, this is not soon enough for the various non-credit courses at these three community colleges to qualify the unemployed for tuition assistance.
“Might there by a shortage of qualified workers? Sure that’s possible,” said Mike Trahan, executive director of the trade group Solar Connecticut. “In a sense it’s a good problem to have. I’d rather be in the position of having lots of work and bringing people up to speed than having a bunch of people sitting around unemployed. Am I alarmed? No. Am I concerned? Yes.”
Bill Stillinger, founder and owner of the solar company PV Squared is also concerned. “We are not ready for the workforce landscape envisioned in this legislation,” he said. “I don’t understand how so many people can want to be pulling in the same direction and yet not really gaining traction. I don’t see that the effort is being effectively coordinated. It is a real problem.”
Rina Bakalar, director of workforce competitiveness at the Connecticut Department of Labor agreed that the scattershot approach based on funding available at any given time can leave people seeking workforce training at a loss and enrollment lagging in several areas.
She said meetings are underway with the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the Clean Energy Finance and Investment Authority to figure out how to refocus some of the existing programs specifically to help train people for those “green” jobs expected to come out of the energy legislation.
“Yes,” she said, “we need to streamline and we need to make things more understandable.”
She also says that one of the thorniest problems to be addressed is that many people seeking training through the kinds of non-credit courses most readily available at community colleges are not eligible for classic financial aid.
Changing that, she said, “would help us make great strides.”
Alice Pritchard, executive director of the Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, who also started the Campaign for a Working Connecticut, has been making that argument for some time. “We know that people have to pay out of pocket for those training opportunities,” she said. “In green technical training, it probably is a more significant amount of money.
“It would help tremendously,” she said of financial aid for continuing ed.
She points to the success of a program that provided partial scholarships to people seeking training in the healthcare field. And she said if nothing that addresses this issue comes out of the special legislative session on jobs later this month, during the next full session her group is prepared to advocate for legislation that seeks $1 million in assistance for students taking non-degree continuing education technical courses.
But the balance of how many jobs to create to spur an industry–especially those new ones coming from the energy legislation–versus laying the groundwork for one of those industries to spur demand for jobs can be tricky.
“By creating a larger market you can drive enrollment in these programs,” said Alex Kragie, special assistant to DEEP commissioner Dan Esty, advocating the latter approach. And he noted that there are already many trained people looking for jobs. “If we design these programs the right way then we can take the best advantage of the existing workforce and can also drive the next generation of work the workforce that’s being trained.”