Interview: Dr. Mary Spilde, President of Lane Community College, Eugene, OR, talks about green workforce education

It was a sea of some 500 faces that greeted Dr. Mary Spilde as she opened the 3rd National New Ideas in Educating a Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Workforce conference in Albany November 19-20, 2009.  Dr. Spilde is President of Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where more than 36,000 students take credit or non-credit courses, including energy efficiency and renewable energy courses.

Dr. Spilde was kind enough to talk with IREC and discuss Lane’s approach to responding to the robust demand for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs that will build a green workforce.  Here’s our conversation.

IREC:  Dr. Spilde, the Wendell Berry poem, ‘Work Song, part 2: A Vision:’ why did you choose that piece as a preface to your remarks?

MS: I chose it because I think it reflects what we do at community colleges – take things (people) where they are and help them transform their lives through learning. It speaks to Lane’s values of sustainability, learning, collaboration and partnership. It recognizes what we are doing is hard work, but that creating a different future – taking care of people and the environment – are fully possible.

IREC:  I agree with you.  It’s encouraging to see the potential for that different future happening in so many educational institutions these days.  Lane’s made a name for itself back in the 1980’s as a leader in energy management curriculum, starting with an emphasis in residential energy efficiency and solar energy systems.  It’s continued to iterate, now offering commercial energy efficiency and renewable energy system installation technologies, with a two-year associate degree program.  Just a quick look at the program’s website– all two-year energy management degree programs sold out for 2009, and the waiting list for 2010 classes has been expanded to accept additional applicants.   How does Lane keep up with this sort of pressure to train the community for today’s green workforce?

MS: We are fortunate that in this labor market and in this part of the country that we still have good pools of applicants for positions.

IREC:  I spoke with Roger Ebbage, Director of Lane’s trailblazing and highly successful energy management program, and he told me that his class size has tripled over the years—from 30-90 students.  Where do the program directors, deans, find the qualified faculty to meet this demand? Is this a good problem to have?

MS: We are always pleased when there is high demand for our programs, but we still carry some responsibility to assure that we are not saturating the job market. We want to make sure that our graduates will find jobs when they complete their course work. This has not been a problem in this program so as long as we can maintain quality by hiring qualified staff we will try to meet the need.

IREC:  You don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines when there’s demand for a specific workforce, but neither do you want to, nor can you afford to experiment with new technologies. How do you respond to current economic and workforce trends?  Does your faculty play a large role in pitching new program areas, or do you develop curriculum based on labor trends?

MS:  It’s a little bit of both.  It starts with knowing the labor market.  We’re not going to start a technical program unless we see a labor market need.  In Oregon, when we apply for a new program our state looks at the labor market to make sure we won’t saturate the market.

IREC:  Looks like you’ve known for a while that energy efficiency and renewable energy are strong labor markets; otherwise, you’d not be investing so much time and resources into this program area.

MS:  We’re constantly scanning and studying the labor market.  Every two years, our local Employment Department presents to our board and staff, tells us where  there is growth, what are the industries that are seeing large groups of retirees, how many new jobs there will  be.  We may also have a faculty member who’s connected to a field who suggests a particular industry, but ultimately, we’re going to benchmark it to the labor market so that we’re graduating people with the skills that employers want to hire.  The nature of community colleges is driven by two things:  in this time of severely constrained resources, reinventing the wheel doesn’t make sense.   We build on our strength, so when we start a new program area, learning from best practices from others is the most effective thing to do.

IREC:  Besides traditional classroom learning, what other sorts of teaching pedagogies does LCC offer?

MS:  The number of students on site in traditional classrooms outweighs the number of online students. LCC hasn’t been a leader in online learning, though we’ve set online learning as a strategic goal recently, to build on our niche programs, like Energy Management and make it available online.    The number of hybrid courses are increasing—this is where you have both online and hands-on learning.  Research has shown that hybrid courses have good success.   Other pedagogies that have been proven and successful are learning communities where the learning is linked around a theme, a question or a goal.  Typically, students enroll in two or more classes, creating a common community.  Learning experiences are enhanced by a sense of community and common understanding across disciplines.  Research has also shown that students who take learning communities have a higher success rate.

IREC:  How about green workforce training–are there students involved in learning communities?

MS: I don’t know of any specific learning communities for green workforce training though there are learning communities on broader sustainability issues – general education courses such as Ecotrails which links Global Ecology and Writing 122.

IREC:  In your presentation, you referenced four parts as a framework for green jobs:  nascent, emerging, efficiency/energy management, and ‘greening’ of existing jobs.   I get the first three, but I’m curious about the last one, and wonder if any job can be ‘greened?’ Does it depend on the definition of ‘green,’ or is it based on an awareness of the finiteness of resources?    Does LCC subscribe to the ‘greening of existing jobs’ mantra, and if so, how are you going about it?

MS:  The vast majority of jobs already exist and people are already in the workforce. The challenge is to integrate a sensibility about the environment, about sustainability into those jobs and those workers. Whether it’s an electrician, plumber, painter, chef, there are things that can be done to “green” what they do. As businesses recognize consumers are looking for “green” services, they are looking for opportunities to have their employees learn about that. Also, as we prepare students for a broad range of occupations, not just energy-related we need to be integrating sustainable thinking and action.

IREC:   That line of thinking used to be relegated to a small group, but thankfully, it’s becoming more mainstream.  Everything is connected.  You’re very busy: you’re in Albany on a Thursday, presenting at a national conference, then you’re off to Portland on Friday for meetings.  Is being president of a large, vibrant community college what you expected?

MS:  Two things:  I thought that when I became president, I’d be further removed from students, but that’s not proven to be true.   I have a lot of interaction with students and I get to hear their stories and where they are in their lives.  Their stories remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing.   Second:  In order to get the job of president, most people go through the traditional ranks of being on the faculty, becoming a dean, then vice president and finally president.  But to keep the job is a very different skill set.  There’s legislative work, community, fundraising.  I knew that intellectually, but much of how one learns to be a president is on the job.  The skill set is quite different.  Certainly being faculty or dean or vice president puts you in good stead to become president, but there is a lot more to it.  Truth is, I love what I do.


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