Educating the Next Generation to Compete in the Clean Energy Economy

By Kate Gordon, Director of Advanced Energy & Sustainability at the Center for the Next Generation, and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress
(This article appears in the October, 2012 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

I’ve spent many years making the case that transitioning to a greener, more advanced energy economy will create jobs, spur economic growth and put America on a path toward global technological leadership. But lately, I’ve been thinking that I’ve placed too much emphasis on the stuff side of this equation—the need for investment in the products that make up the greener economy, like the wind farms, smart grid systems and efficient cars—and not enough on the people side—the high-quality workforce that can actually dream up, make, and install all that stuff. What does America need provided in advanced education, experience, and skills in order to prepare a workforce of students to meet the needs of the new green economy?

My colleague, Ann O’Leary, tends to focus her work on people more than on stuff, and she knows well that education and training are absolutely fundamental to any strategy for economic growth.  She has a new report out, jointly produced and co-authored by The Center for the Next Generation and the Center for American Progress (CAP), showing that our primary international competitors, China and India, are gearing up to seize a larger share of the future economy through greater investments in education. That report, “The Competition That Really Matters,” compares U.S., Chinese and Indian investments in the next-generation workforce. The research shows that a highly ambitious commitment to education is the heart of economic revitalization in China and India, leading them to expand the number of children enrolled at all levels of the education system, producing up to five times as many college graduates each year.

Meanwhile, approximately 44 percent of American workers do not have any education beyond high school. By 2018, only 36 percent of jobs will be open to workers with a high school diploma, while 63 percent will require at least some form of post-secondary education. The math is simple. At this pace, we will fall well behind the competition—and forfeit lucrative jobs in the process.  What does this mean? Americans run the risk of consigning another generation to low-skill, low-wage jobs—and higher rates of poverty.

Given these sobering results, Ann and her co-authors, Donna Cooper and Adam Hersh, argue that the American education system needs a shot in the arm. They contend that we need to make human capital investments, especially in young people—and that investing in education will yield the highest rate of return.

I think they’re right, but I also think that for a green economy, we need to go a step further.

The emerging advanced energy economy worldwide is already creating millions of jobs and generating trillions of dollars in economic activity. These jobs run the gamut — research and development, engineering, architecture, advanced manufacturing, construction, operations and maintenance. They provide well-paid opportunities for low-, middle- and high-skill workers.

Figure 1: From “Preparing America’s Workforce for Jobs in the Green Economy: A Case for Technical Literacy”, Center for American Progress April 2011

But is the American higher education system educating and training Americans to be able to access these jobs?  Talk to employers across the advanced energy spectrum, and they’ll tell you we don’t have a workforce capable of matching job needs, especially in the manufacturing and construction sectors, which comprise nearly half of the new energy economy. Not only do we need to provide better access to educate our children, we need to better prepare our future workforce for highly technical and skill-based jobs in the emerging energy sector.

In the past, we’ve addressed this issue in large part by splitting up our educational goals and our workforce training goals.  Different federal agencies work on K-12 education (Department of Education) and on training programs for specific industries and occupations (Department of Labor).  In the schools that have tried to incorporate both, we’ve too often seen a split between the “academic” tracks and the “vocational” tracks, forcing students to choose between hands-on careers and academic studies even before they’ve had a chance to show their own particular interests or potential.

There has to be a better way.  We need our graduates with skills to become journeyman electricians installing large solar arrays as well as with the intellectual tools for a career as a Ph.D. engineer designing new and more efficient future projects.

My former CAP colleagues, Louis Soares and Stephen Stiegleder, and I call this foundational knowledge “technical literacy,” and we talk about how to get there in a new paper for the green economy symposium of the Duke Forum for Law & Social Change.  “Preparing America’s Workforce for Jobs in the Green Economy: A Case for Technical Literacy” argues that the clean energy revolution will be more capital and labor intensive than the high-tech or biotech revolutions. It will also require more workers, nearly half of whom will need technical skills in traditionally “middle-skill” jobs like construction, and manufacturing.

This vision of a more technically literate workforce requires that all students get an education that is both academic and practical.  If campuses are concerned about providing a “sustainable” education, their curriculum must reflect the economic changes forecasted to our jobs and necessary skill-set. Higher education has begun the transformation (and comingling) of campus and curriculum to create  “living laboratories” to address these needs, investing student time into campus energy projects such as designing solar arrays for residential buildings, and assessing the campus’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.

But these programs take time to implement, and require a re-thinking of faculty time, classroom learning objectives, and campus planning.  Are campuses doing enough to prepare students with these opportunities?

Moreover, while individual campuses may be pursuing solutions, what about the big picture for American education?  Is the current system flexible enough to accommodate the needs of our students and workers? The two primary federal programs aimed at providing technical workforce training are underfunded and short-sighted; and public and private workforce training schemes are disjointed.

The key to creating a more coherent post-secondary education system that delivers technical literacy is for business and education leaders to leverage their knowledge of labor markets, skills and pedagogy to build new curriculum and instructional models.

Community colleges, situated as they are at the crossroads of higher education and workforce training, are an ideal starting point. The Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN) and the Greenforce Initiative, as well as the Sustainability Education and Economic Development (SEED) Center, provide excellent examples of their successful programs.  Other initiatives have been successful in creating partnerships which link community needs with educational output, including the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI), which links local colleges, school districts, and community partners together in join climate-action initiatives which provide ample opportunity for hands-on skill (and leadership) development for students.

Beyond them, my co-authors and I recommend two approaches to promote and expand innovative community-college–industry partnerships. The first is to use existing federal, state and local funds to promote innovation and use more research to identify best practices. The second is to use these partnerships for large-scale experiments, supported by a federal grant program, to demonstrate that they’re achievable.

Campuses with living laboratory and community or corporate partnerships are ahead of the curve.  Those already preparing students for a changing economy will remain competitive in the coming years, as the foundation of American education is changed by increasingly unsustainable financial obligations and demand for appropriate skills and education.   But for these efforts to translate into real jobs for America’s next generation, our national policymakers need to make a clear commitment to a more advanced and sustainable energy future and a skilled workforce to maintain it. Otherwise, we will risk putting training dollars into ossified programs that will prepare workers for jobs that simply do not exist.

About The Center for the Next Generation: The Center for the Next Generation works to shape national dialogue around two major challenges that affect the prospects of America’s Next Generation – advancing a sustainable energy future and improving opportunities for children and families. As a nonpartisan organization, the Center generates original strategies that advance these goals through research, policy development and strategic communications. In our home state of California, the Center works to create ground-tested solutions that demonstrate success to the rest of the nation.