One of the most important lessons I learned about how to train workers for green-collar jobs came from an unusual place: the automotive industry. Specifically, Shoreline Community College’s Automotive Service and Repair program in Shoreline, Washington. Before I cover Shoreline’s program as a good model for green collar job training, I’ll touch on some of the key challenges to meeting an increasing demand for energy efficiency workers.

The challenges. Two of the biggest problems are the lack of basic skills in the potential workforce and the lack of coordinated degree programs across the educational spectrum.  Increasingly, community colleges and technical schools are developing programs in renewable energy and efficiency, but usually those programs offer credentials that aren’t portable to other programs and institutions. A third issue frames the first two: a lack of national level professional certifications for workers in the field. Certifications tend to drive the marketplace and the curriculum set by educational institutions, leading to more standard techniques, measures and procedures on the job.

  • Taken together, these issues mean many workers—especially those re-entering the workforce—get some training for specific work but can often find it difficult to move around the industry easily and, lacking basic skills—reading, math and writing, for example—struggle to succeed in the workplace. Finding, training and placing workers for green-collar jobs can be an uphill climb. This is true especially when potential workers lack basic skills and the field lacks a broad set of standards to train to.

    The solutions. How does the automotive industry address these problems? Shoreline Community College has cultivated a close relationship with the Puget Sound Automobile Dealers Association (PSADA) to create a program that is significantly funded by the industry and trains workers so that they get important basic skills, real work experience, and the required certifications to get and keep career ladder jobs in the automotive industry. How did they pull this together and how does it work?

    Jim Hammond of PSADA told me recently at a local town hall on job creation inspired by President Obama’s Jobs Summit, that the partnership has been 30 years in the making. It started with a conversation between Hammond and Don Schultz, the head of automotive programs at Shoreline, about how the college could help create a steady stream of qualified, reliable workers for local car dealers. The dealers need for these workers was important enough to their bottom line to invest in building a program at Shoreline. Schultz says that even in these tough times, dealers continue to contribute to the program, citing one example of a dealer who, even though he closed his business, paid his pledge, believing the program was important enough both to the industry and the students to contribute his money.

    Add to this locally driven partnership the existence of national certification programs driven by the industry. General Motors, for example, has the Automotive Service Educational Program (ASEP), created more than 30 years ago, which provides standards and curriculum for “advanced automotive technical training with a strong academic foundation of math, reading, and electronics, and both analytical and technical skills.” Local GM dealers can hire new employees, sponsor them into the program at Shoreline and then, when the student completes an 11 week training program, put that student to work right away. The student can continue to alternate between the program and work and is basically assured of job placement. The typical starting pay for workers in the program is about $20 an hour, although many start higher and increase their earnings over time.

    Shoreline’s program works because there is a local partnership with industry that provides the funding to teach students both basic skills and give them training on the techniques, practices and equipment that makes them highly valuable to employees. The key ingredients are national level certifications driven by the industry and local investment by dealers who can increase their profits by hiring well trained and loyal workers.

    The energy efficiency world would certainly gain by adding all of these ingredients to the green jobs mix. While there are large industry leaders like McKinstry, there has been little local investment in developing a program like Shoreline’s auto training system for energy retrofits. There are programs at Edmonds Community College and South Seattle Community College that are early in their development. But there aren’t any national standards for retrofit and weatherization work, with most certifications being limited to LEED and Energy Star ratings.

    A good place to start making this type of program happen would be at the funding source, by setting standards for accessing stimulus money. These requirements could be set collaboratively between colleges and state and local government. Even though these training standards wouldn’t be national in scope, they could lead to the creation of a workforce with strong basic skills and training in the most critical techniques needed for retrofits. The industry would need to contribute a map of best practices and funding to build the program. Schools would have to work with industry to create degrees and certifications with portability throughout the system.

    Is it a good idea to follow the example of the automotive industry? After all isn’t it the car with its dirty, fossil fuel-burning engine what got us into this climate crisis in the first place? That might be true, but Shoreline College President Lee Lambert pointed out some important facts that suggest that even the automotive industry can create green jobs through programs like theirs. He suggests that workers are learning to reduce environmental impacts of auto repair, including preventing spills of oil and other chemicals and properly disposing them. And as cars move toward more sustainable sources of energy for their operation, the program creates workers who can fix that generation of new vehicles, giving them an edge over other workers and helping to get more efficient cars on the road.

    Shoreline’s program is a model worth considering for workforce training that will lead to real career ladder jobs in the energy efficiency field. This will be critical as other programs in our region create demand for retrofits across the residential and commercial sector. While buildings are not mass produced like cars, workers with employer-supported training could substantively address that issue as well.