As green industry grows, so does need for niche training

The green sector is expected to grow significantly coming out of this recession. But the future of green jobs depends...

By Isaac Bonnell

By most estimates, the green industry is poised to grow significantly, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s hard to nail down exactly what a green job is, though — mostly because it is such a young industry, but also because it is growing so quickly. New jobs are being created every year that require a specific set of skills and training, such as solar panel installers or pervious pavement specialists.

“We are always seeking highly skilled, specialized people, typically with a lot of electrical engineering talent,” said president of Alpha Technologies Drew Zogby.

The question that puzzles economists and politicians alike is how to train people for green jobs that aren’t here yet?
The good news is that most of the green jobs being created do not require radically different job skills, just a bit more knowledge about environmental systems or green standards.

In 2008, the state of Washington undertook a study of green jobs to figure out more about this emerging sector of the economy. The report found that most green jobs require one to four years of training, usually in the form of a bachelor’s degree.

In fact, training for most green jobs is not radically different from training for other sectors, according to the report.

For example, Alpha Technologies has a large research and development staff to design and test new products. While many in that department have specialized training in green technologies, they typically have a base in electrical engineering, Zogby said.

“Western helps a lot — we get a lot of talent out of there,” he said. “We get a lot of students from the engineering program and the environmental economics program.”

On top of classic engineering training, there are many options out there for additional certification or job training in green technologies that are helping build a skilled labor pool for the green sector.

“I think we could do a much better job of being proactive and making people aware of certifications that can position them better in the green sector — and just expose students and displaced workers to the options that are out there in the renewable energy industry,” Zogby said.

Training for the job

Though the bulk of green jobs in the state do not require special training, that trend could change, said Dave Bren, director of the Bellingham-based Washington Engineering Institute (WEI). As the industry grows, so does the need for specialty services.

Starting Oct. 5, the institute will start its first classes in its renewable energy engineering technologies program. This two-year certificate program trains students to be engineering technicians, the people who gather field data and produce detailed drawings of a project.

The program exposes students to the intricacies of wind, solar and hydro power while teaching them how to use engineering software to design such projects, Bren said.

“The field is really new and it’s expanding, and employers around here need engineering technicians,” Bren said. “Worst case scenario, what could happen? That industry might not pick up as quickly as thought.”

If these green jobs aren’t there when students finish the program, they will have enough mechanical engineering training to fall back on to apply as mechanical engineering technicians, Bren said. But he said he is confident that the demand is out there for engineering technicians who understand renewable energy — just look at the wind farms of eastern Washington.

The 12 students in the program don’t seem to be too concerned about not finding work in the green sector, but rather excited about new opportunities. At a time when many unemployed workers are considering a career change, training for a career in the green sector is becoming more appealing, Bren said.

“By getting into a brand new industry at the beginning, you have more opportunity to excel,” Bren said.

Becoming an expert

It’s just like investing: if you can invest at the beginning of a market surge, you stand to benefit the most. That strategy has certainly paid off for Mark Buehrer of 2020 Engineering.

Buehrer started the company in 1995 with the goal of designing environmentally conscious projects. Right away, Buehrer jumped into the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program and spent 12 years designing water systems for LEED projects around the country. These days he is focused more on low-impact development and the Living Building Challenge put forth by the Cascadia Green Building Council.

By keeping up with industry standards and current environmental strategies, Buehrer has been able to keep busy and expand his company to nine employees, including three engineers that were just hired this year.

With no shortage of work in sight, Buehrer is surprised that more engineering firms aren’t putting more resources into the green sector.

“Part of it is that we’re a small firm and we can change direction easily,” he said. “Big firms can’t change as quickly. There’s risk in doing something new and different from the way they have made money in the past.”

Even with the slowdown in commercial construction, anyone who can design a rainwater harvesting system or install pervious pavement will find themselves in a sparsely populated field with plenty of work to do, Buehrer said

“There still seems to be only a small percentage of people in the engineering field who do this kind of work,” Buehrer said. “The opportunity is there to become experts in this field.”

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