Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Green Job Wave

Riding the Green Job Wave
Environmental degrees meet growing demand for workers
By David Hirning
Paid environmental work used to mean getting a four-year science degree or joining a nonprofit and trying to raise awareness of issues such as rain forest destruction or endangered species.
But as issues such as climate change and ecosystem restoration enter the mainstream, so-called "green-collar" jobs -- and the training programs needed to land them -- are becoming more and more common.
One school that is capitalizing on this "green wave" is Cascadia Community College in Seattle. The school recently created a two-year program called Environmental Technologies and Sustainable Practices, which is specifically designed to prepare students for the growing environmental job market.
"We are responding to what employers want," says Bill Christopher, president of Cascadia. "This is not a fad -- if you look at the future, green jobs will replace a lot of the jobs that have come and gone in the United States."
These jobs range from the technical (installing solar panels) to the administrative (managing a company's plan to reduce energy costs). Cascadia students can choose their path: earn an administrative assistant degree and go straight to -- or return to -- the workforce, or transfer to a four-year program to pursue a bachelor's degree.
"The green job market will need both kinds of workers," says Sharon Buck, dean of student learning at the college. "Our program is designed to meet both demands."
A big part of Cascadia's program is placing students in internships and connecting them with people in the environmental field, paving the way to future employment. Programs range from 20 to 90 credits, and daytime, evening and online classes are all available.
Green alternatives
If you're already in the workforce and want to improve your skills or explore some of these new career alternatives, more directed training could be a good choice. Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable, Mass., offers five different environmental certificate programs targeted at returning students, including environmental site assessment, geographic information systems and coastal zone management.
There are also specific programs for fields such as clean energy technology, an area where the job market has boomed in the last couple years.
"The clean energy field is a great place to be right now," says Stephanie Brady, coordinator of the school's environmental technology program.
She notes that this field is becoming an important sector of the economy in Massachusetts, which passed the Green Communities Act of 2007 to promote renewable energy usage. "We get regular job postings for our students, even in this economy."
Advanced degrees in the environmental field are also becoming more valuable and prevalent. One of the best is the master's program at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., which has been around for more than two decades. Although it's not new, the program is suddenly drawing more interest from students who want to make a difference along with making a living.
"There's been a dramatic increase in public awareness over the last two years," says Ted Whitesell, the director of the Evergreen program. "The students are excited by what's going on, and we're seeing a lot more interest in our program for [the entering class of] 2009."
Whitesell adds that Evergreen is very accommodating of returning students, offering all of its courses at night or on weekends.

Wide variety of career options
The school also benefits from its proximity to the state government's home in Olympia. As cities and states begin to take on the challenge of building sustainable communities, green jobs are a natural outgrowth.
"The government is getting serious about climate change, but they don't know the next steps," Whitesell says. "When the city of Tumwater [Washington] signed the Kyoto Accord on global warming, the city manager didn't know what to do. We found a student for him, and after interning the student graduated right into a job with the city."
Annie Lindberg, a student in Evergreen's master's program, worked as a "sustainability" intern with Centralia Community College in Washington during the summer of 2008. Her work there involved analyzing the school's carbon footprint and making recommendations to administrators on how to reduce energy use and cut emissions.
Lindberg had previously taught marine science to young students, but now she's open to a wider range of jobs. “Evergreen allows you to look at the bigger picture," she says. "People with this degree are able to do all kinds of work, from nonprofits to government work to sustainable agriculture."
Like Cascadia, which did extensive watershed restoration around its campus when it was built in 2000, Evergreen not only talks the talk, it walks the walk. The school was recently ranked fifth in the nation in environmentally sustainable campus practices by the Sierra Club magazine. For example, Evergreen's campus has a large organic farm where students can put their learning to work while also putting food on the table.
Mainstreaming the green degree
As environmental awareness and education has gone mainstream, the bigger schools are taking notice. The Sierra Club "Cool Schools" survey noted that the debut of large public universities on its list "represents a dramatic shift even from last year."
The University of Florida, for example, ranked seventh overall in the report. Students there can major in environmental engineering sciences, but they can also opt to study a different discipline -- such as business or law -- while getting a minor in environmental studies, a program targeted at nonscience majors. The department offers a diverse range of classes, including "Biodiversity Conservation," "Ethics and Ecology," and "Environmental Economics and Resource Policy."
The fact is, many schools are scrambling to catch up to a green employment market that is constantly evolving and generating whole new job categories. David Blockstein, the director of an educational development program at the National Council for Science and the Environment, says that we don't even know what the green jobs of the future -- and the degrees needed to get them -- will look like.
"How do you develop the future climate-change solvers, the future environmental professionals that will be needed?" he says. "It's a time of turmoil -- jobs that didn't exist a couple years ago are suddenly available, which means that students already in school have to develop new skills on the fly."
Blockstein says that today's students can't just get an environmental degree and think they're done with school. "It's really about lifelong learning," he notes. "People in this field are going to have to regularly refresh their knowledge to take advantage of the new opportunities that are emerging."

About the Author
David Hirning is a freelance writer specializing in educational issues. He worked for 15 years as a journalist and as an editor for Encarta Encyclopedia.

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