California Community Colleges partner with private sector to train needed energy workforce

610 200 Amber Nelson

(Photo Credit: Alex Snyder/Wayne National Forest)

Just over a year ago, Governor Jerry Brown approved California State Senate Bill 350. The Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 mandates a doubling of the energy efficiency goals set out in Assembly Bill 32, which passed in 2006. Clearly good for the environment, these bills create a path to a cleaner future for California but they don’t directly address the issue of building a workforce to meet that goal.

“The technology is almost there but when it comes down to the folks actually doing the work, there are big skills gaps,” said Jim Caldwell, Sector Navigator and Statewide Director for Energy, Construction and Utilities education for the California Community Colleges.

“The workforce has been task oriented, focusing on repairs and responding to complaints,” rather than problem solving for untapped energy savings that would contribute to meeting the goals of SB350, explained Carlos Santamaria, founder and principle of CEES-Advisors, an international consulting firm that helps businesses implement operational best practices to save energy and operating expenses.

“The gaps are huge,” Santamaria explained. “A lot of companies are hiring outside firms to offer solutions and that’s fine but 70 to 80 percent are just keeping the status quo.”

According to an Advanced Energy Economy Institute report, California will need about 15,000 well-trained workers every year to keep up with the pace of progress and comply with SB350.

Caldwell sees California’s community colleges playing a big role in training workers to meet the demands of SB350; the new Strong Workforce Program is designed to respond to the needs of the state and regions to close the skills gap in California's economy. In addition to community colleges, there are many other training options are available throughout California including certified apprenticeship programs, the utilities’ energy training centers, Workforce Development Boards, private training institutions and community-based organizations. But none of these programs is directly aligned with SB350’s workforce priorities.

“I’ve been asking who owns the workforce skills challenge,” Caldwell said about the emerging need.

The answer isn’t readily apparent. Each of the training entities has separate funding sources and engages in unconnected efforts, few of which are closely aligned with the needs of the advanced energy economy. From Caldwell’s perspective, gathering the primary stakeholders into a strategic alliance that can be formalized and made into a public-private partnership is the best way forward. To that end, he reached out to Kish Rajan, president of the Southern California Leadership Council (SCLC), a non-partisan, non-profit, business-led public policy partnership of business and community leaders.  

Rajan immediately understood the potential power of collaboration: there was a real and urgent need to identify the supply and demand implications of the new law on the workforce and the importance of aligning employers, workforce officials and the community colleges around a solution design that is tangible and, ultimately, useful.

Together, Rajan and Caldwell assembled a core group to begin the process of determining the right data set to guide participants toward identifying what training is needed, who is available for training, and what programs the community colleges need to implement to meet the demand.

“I believed that by creating a data-driven solution, it would breed confidence in private sector participants, which is why I agreed to help,” Rajan said. “When we elevate the level of confidence the private sector has in the solution design, it dramatically improves our opportunity to succeed in solving this real workforce challenge.”

“Employers know they need training but most don’t have the resources,” Caldwell explained. “Working together, the leaders in both the public and private sectors can close the gaps between workforce readiness and the demands of the advanced energy economy.”

The value of the proposed partnership is significant in economic terms. Specifically, the goals include increasing investments in high-performance commercial buildings, minimizing GHG emissions and energy usage in commercial buildings, creating family-wage jobs and assuring social equity, funding the initiatives from existing sources, building on existing stakeholder alliances and measuring impact and making refinements as the project moves forward.

“This represents an example of a deliberate and intelligent regional effort to realize the potential for high wage green economy jobs,” said Jim Mayer, president and CEO of CA Fwd, which is supporting the implementation of the Strong Workforce Program through the California Economic Summit, taking place in Sacramento on December 13-14 (Registration and Information).

“Making sure that clean energy employers can identify and ultimately recruit qualified workers is the aim of our Strong Workforce Program,” said Van Ton-Quinlivan, vice chancellor for Workforce and Economic Development California Community Colleges. “The efforts underway in Southern California are a perfect example of how a public-private partnership can advance real solutions to everyday challenges.”

Though Southern California is the focus of the current collaboration, Rajan believes the model is portable and can be used in other regional economic sectors throughout the state. “We have the chance to create a breakthrough. It's very exciting,” he said.


Amber Nelson

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