As the “green” economy continues to expand, so do training programs for workers entering these fields. One of the newest educators, Ecotech Institute, Aurora, Colo., will see its first class of 40 green graduates prepare to enter the workforce in June. The two-year technical institute bills itself as the “first and only college entirely focused on preparing students for careers in renewable energy,” according to academic dean Glenn Wilson. A second campus location is planned for Austin, Tex., to open in 2013.
“Other colleges offer wind, solar, and energy efficiency programs, but at Ecotech, that's all we do,” explains Wilson. “We have state-of-the-art laboratories with the latest equipment so that our students receive valuable and realistic hands-on training in addition to textbook instruction.”
What's more, each degree program is designed based on input from actual employers who will be hiring graduates for renewable energy jobs. Wilson, who holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a master's degree in engineering management, has worked as a design engineer, engineering manager, and plant manager for Anheuser Busch over three decades. In those positions, much of his work involved energy efficiency, bio fuels, hydrogen cells, and some wind and solar applications.
“Ecotech is now training the technicians I've been searching for and trying to train during the past 30 years of my career. Talented and educated engineering technicians are hard to come by in today's workforce,” says Wilson. “These are the highly trained employees who work alongside engineers in keeping plants and equipment up and running.”
Ecotech features small classes with hands-on, individualized instruction from teachers with backgrounds in energy management; flexible class schedules; and nine labs focusing on electricity, electronics, solar, wind, and safety applications. Each two-year program costs roughly $35,000, not including cost of living expenses. Financial aid is available, as well as support for military personnel with educational benefits. Degree programs include wind energy technology, solar energy technology, energy efficiency, renewable energy technology, electrical engineering technology, environmental technology, and a program for energy and environmental paralegals.
Compared with a traditional four-year engineering degree track, the Ecotech programs take two years to complete and confer an associate's degree rather than a bachelor's degree. Technical courses are based on algebra, rather than calculus, and graduates are considered engineering technicians rather than engineers.
“Another difference is the training itself. The Ecotech instruction is much more hands-on and practical, rather than theoretical,” explains Wilson.
For example, the solar energy technology program provides instruction on operating, troubleshooting, maintaining, and repairing photovoltaic equipment, including how to perform maintenance and repair or replace parts to correct problems. Coursework is geared towards preparing students to perform diagnostic analyses and meet industry standards. According to the Solar Foundation, the job outlook appears promising for solar technicians.
Solar energy is now a $6 billion industry, up 300% from 2006, with a job base that expanded 6.8% in a recent 12-month period — nearly 10 times faster than the overall economy. Solar employers forecast their workforce to grow 24% during 2012, according to the Solar Foundation's National Solar Jobs Census 2011, compiled with BW Research Partnership's Green LMI Consulting division and Cornell University. California continues to be the leader in solar employment, with 25,575 workers. Other states in the top 10 are Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida, Texas, Oregon, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
The two-year wind energy program at Ecotech similarly provides practical, hands-on training and a promising job outlook. Courses include instruction on how to evaluate new turbines and their readiness for operation, as well as how to resolve early stage electrical and mechanical faults. Instruction is geared toward preparing students to operate, troubleshoot, maintain, and repair a wind turbine operation, including solving complicated mechanical and electrical problems on variable pitch, variable speed turbines. Through hands-on labs, students also learn to perform mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical component maintenance, and to repair and replace parts to correct problems.
As far as employment prospects, wind is now the fastest growing energy source in the U.S., and a recent report by the DOE suggests that it could contribute 20% of the nation's electricity by 2030. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not collect data specific to wind energy jobs, the most recent figures from the American Solar Energy Society estimate 16,000 jobs in wind turbine construction and maintenance. These jobs were once limited to a few states that were early adopters of renewable energy, but wind farms now operate in 34 states. Most of these farms are owned by major utility companies that pay a wind energy company to install and maintain turbines. Because of this, many wind energy employees travel extensively as technicians specializing in turbine blade repair or electrical work.
Beyond renewable energy, Ecotech also offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in energy efficiency. The program coursework is geared towards how to analyze energy usage for residential and commercial buildings; recommend sustainable energy solutions for high-consumption structures; and recognize and correct inefficient building energy systems. Energy efficiency is considered to be one of the hottest areas for job growth, according to Wilson.
The field includes jobs related to building retrofits, the smart grid, home weatherization, lighting upgrades, and grid infrastructure. Emerging job titles include energy auditor, weatherization operations manager, green building architect, and retrofit architect. Students trained in energy efficiency could enter careers in construction, manufacturing, consulting, HVAC installing and servicing, control systems, and other sectors. The BLS does not provide salary or other data for this specialty, but according to the Clean Tech Job Trends 2010 report from research firm Clean Edge Inc., the smart grid and energy efficiency category is third only to solar power and biofuels/biomaterials as one of the hottest clean-tech job sectors in the U.S.
Depending on the degree program and whether or not graduates are willing to relocate or travel, Wilson believes starting salaries could be anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 annually. Ecotech's enrollment now stands at 500 students among the different programs, with 85 to 100 new students starting each quarter. Student demographics vary as well, ranging from high school graduates to displaced workers in their 40s and 50s needing to train for a new career.
“I've been working as a lighting and sound technician, but really needed to find a career,” says solar technology student Arien Sorenson, a 20-something from New Jersey. “I saw some ads for Ecotech a couple of years ago and it seemed like a perfect fit for me.”
Sorenson's wife is a teacher and the family's chief breadwinner for now. Working as a lighting and sound technician for Red Rocks Amphitheatre and other entertainment venues paid the bills, but was not an ideal career choice for the long term, says Sorenson, because of grueling hours and the seasonal nature of outdoor concerts. He will officially graduate as part of Ecotech's first class in June, but has decided to continue for two more quarters to earn a wind energy degree as well.
“Many of the core courses are the same among the programs, and I figure I will be that much more marketable if I have both the solar and wind degrees under my belt,” explains Sorenson, who hopes to eventually work for a wind company such as Vestas and live near the beach.
“Getting back into the swing of school was challenging after 10 years out, but I was able to do it with the help of great teachers,” Sorenson continues. “The time has gone by very quickly and I've really enjoyed it.”
Green training resources
Advanced Technology Environmental and Energy Center, www.ateec.org
Association for Energy Engineers, www.aeecenter.org
Interstate Renewable Energy Council, www.irecusa.org
Ecotech Institute, (877) 326-5576, www.ecotechinstitute.com