Paul Carlson, Clay Sterling and Jennifer Martin stand in front of a wind turbine hand carved by students. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Energy News Network

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Community colleges play a hands-on role in training clean energy workers, but most missed out on the first round of grants from a $30 million Illinois job training fund.

A consortium of Illinois community colleges wants state utility leaders and regulators to prioritize accredited programs when doling out money from a state energy jobs training fund.

The Future Energy Jobs Act earmarked $30 million for job training grants to be administered by ComEd, the state’s largest electric utility, with oversight by the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Community colleges have played a key role in training clean energy workers, but they were largely left out of the first round of grants, which went to nonprofits, labor unions and community groups.

“It is really important that people are getting trained by instructors that have prior training. Programs should have some type of accreditation,” said Jennifer Martin, a senior program coordinator for the Illinois Green Economy Network, whose members include more than three dozen community colleges across the state.

Clay Sterling, an assistant professor of electrical technology at Kankakee Community College, said other states have invested in job training programs outside of accredited programs and it has harmed their local solar industries. He cited programs like California’s now-defunct Boots on the Roof, which offered speedy training but was perceived by many in the industry as subpar.

It was a five- or seven-day training, and you were supposed to know everything about everything,” Sterling said.

That’s not to say Sterling thinks Illinois grant recipients will offer shoddy programs — details about won’t be available until the coming months — but he and others argue that accreditation is key.

The counterargument? It’s more important to fund organizations and business associations with strong relationships in local communities especially economically disadvantaged ones. The law specifically carves outs training funds for economically disadvantaged groups, ex-offenders, and former foster youth.

The law called for $30 million to be disbursed in three $10 million rounds over the next decade. In the first round, $3 million went to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, $4 million was earmarked for community organizations like the Chicago Urban League, and another $3 million was set aside for competitive grants. Some funds will trickle out to other organizations, too.

Andrew Wells, workforce development director for the Chicago Urban League, said he hasn’t experienced a push for job training on this scale. His organization received $1 million for a multicultural job training program.

“It is almost like the Gold Rush. I’ve had every organization and community group call me really wanting to be a part of the project in some way,” Wells said.

The only college to receive funding through the bill was Illinois Central College in Peoria, which does not have an accredited renewable energy training program but does have a history of working with disenfranchised groups through a highway construction training program. It received a $1 million dollar grant along with 15 community organizations and business associations.

Rita Ali, vice president of diversity and community impact at Illinois Central, said relationships within the community and industry are import criteria for a successful training program.

“Having the right partners in place is key,” Ali said. “So you need partners who are connected and know how to relate and reach that [target] population. That’s just critical.”

Illinois Central College is partnering with the Tri-county Urban League and the Peoria Jobs Partnership on its renewable training program. The college is serving as the lead agent for a solar workforce pipeline training program in Central Illinois, and its program will train 120 solar technicians over a four year period. The students will receive a month of job readiness training, which includes math, resume building, and interview training with ICC partner organizations.

Successful students will continue onto a five-week technical training course, which includes more sophisticated math, a 10-hour safety certification, and instruction in solar installation. During this training, students will receive a $10 per hour stipend.

While the program is a non-accredited, Ellen George, dean of corporate and community education, said the college would like to prepare students to take the NABCEP PV associates exam.

“Illinois Central College has been the community for 50 years,” George said. “And so we’re often looked upon as a resource for job training and new programs. So I do think that gives us a leg up — our history.”

Martin, of the Illinois Green Economy Network, thinks there’s opportunity to engage more community colleges in the process, and her hope is that in 2021, when the next round of money is awarded, that more accredited programs will be awarded money.

Kankakee Community College, about 50 miles south of Chicago, is one of the schools that unsuccessfully sought grant money. The college offers a 2-year degree in electrical technology with a renewable energy focus track that includes solar and small wind.  

After losing its industrial and manufacturing base during the ‘80s and ‘90s, Kankakee County was rated the worst place in the the U.S. to live by the Places Rated Almanac. It soon became a punching bag for late-night television host David Letterman, who later donated two gazebos as a mea culpa for making fun of it on air. It’s experienced a turnaround in recent years, and some credit the college’s renewable energy training program for helping to build up the local industry.

The program began in 2008, and in 2014 it was recognized by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council as Clean Energy Training Provider of the Year for accredited programs. The college is moving forward with plans to build a sleek new facility for renewable job training as soon as next year. Ground broke on the Advanced Technology Education Center in April of 2015, only to be stalled by the Illinois budget impasse.

Sterling said Kankakee’s program is ideal for training new renewable energy workers. “The training has to be a part of an established program,” he said. “Our training is part of the electrical technology program. Everyone takes the same core classes, and then are able to expand into renewables.”

Sterling said programs should also have connections to companies to help place students. “That’s almost the most important thing that we can offer. Rubbing elbows with people within the industry, it is small enough that everyone knows everyone else.”

The Environmental Law and Policy Center estimates Illinois’ ambitious legislation could grow renewable energy capital investment by as much as $15 billion. That’s a lot of money, and highly trained workers will be in demand.

Kevin Stark

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.