Los Angeles Trade & Technical College Develops Industry-Based Clean Energy Curriculum

Founded in 1925 as the Frank Wiggins Trade School, LATTC is the oldest of the nine, public two-year colleges in the Los Angeles Community District (LACCD). With one of the lowest enrollment fees in the country, nearly half of all students work more than 30 hours per week while attending school.

It was an American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) grant in 2009 for training in solar PV installation that expanded mock roof install_1LATTC’s clean energy curriculum and helped it recognize the inherent connection between energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Since then, LATTC has achieved a well-deserved reputation for developing industry-based, clean energy curriculum.

William Elarton, LATTC’s department head for the Construction, Design, Maintenance and Utilities Department (CDMU), is a reason why LATTC is on the front lines of developing clean energy, industry-based curriculum that is currently being used at LATTC in the electrical construction and related disciplines.  With an active C-10 Electrical Contractors license, he’s owned and operated his own contracting company for more than 25 years, installing solar PV, solar thermal and small wind energy systems. Bill’s experience and expertise has been pivotal in developing course content for the A.S. degree in renewable energy systems at LATTC.

Earlier this summer, LATTC received IREC’s Training Provider accreditation for its PV and energy efficiency training programs. They were commended for the assessment system developed for their energy efficiency courses which uses rubrics for their instructors to assess all of the job task analysis (JTA) skills and knowledge that they adopted for use in their PV program.

Bill graciously made time to talk with IREC about LATTC and its solar and efficiency programs. Here’s our conversation.


IREC: Bill, how did you get into this work in the first place?

WE:  I started in this work back in 1980 in the U.S. Navy Construction Battalions (CB), aka ‘Seabees’ (from the initials ‘CB’). The Seabees have a long history of construction projects dating back to World War II. I worked in all aspects of the electrical industry and trades, from power line distribution and transmission to communications systems, to prototype PV and solar thermal systems, rain collection and other conservation systems and methods.

I’ve owned and operated a contracting company for more than 25 years, installing solar PV, solar thermal and small wind energy systems. I found my way to LATTC where I taught for more than 20 years. When I became department head for the Construction, Design, Maintenance and Utilities Department (CDMU) at LATTC, I became more committed to making sure our students can leave LATTC well trained for clean energy jobs, and making sure our faculty has the training and facilities necessary to train our students.

IREC: What inspired LATTC to seek the IREC credential for Accredited Training Program in both efficiency and solar PV?   Do you see the IREC credential as a market advantage?

WE: It’s funny how things happen, usually when you least expect them. It was the economic downturn and an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant in 2009 that got us involved with solar. Through this grant, we trained 150 people in renewable energy principles and solar energy, with a focus on PV installation. This led us to understand the biggest bang for our buck was in energy efficiency.  At the same time, I started an electrical lineman program, launched just before the downturn. We were really challenged to keep funding and programs in tact. The CDMU department already had the core of all the trades and it was a no-brainer to integrate green principles into all of our existing programs as we built out the specific needs of the weatherization and efficiency (Wx Program) and PV.  These funds allowed my department to maintain in most areas 98%- 99% of all the classes and we actually were able to expand into solar, solar thermal, and weatherization/efficiency programs while the rest of the departments were experiencing cuts.

We knew about IREC’s credential so we decided to pursue it. Do I see it as a market advantage? Yes, especially now that the new IREC Standard accredits training providers. We see it as value for the student and the training provider—being accredited and certified to a rigorous standard of excellence.

solar measurementIREC:  So you’d say that integrating solar content into existing curriculum was better, easier than starting from scratch? 

WE: It was still expensive, but it was much more successful for the students.  We know that some of the surrounding schools that haven’t integrated solar content into existing curriculum have had a much harder time training their students with the necessary skills for the jobs that are out there.

IREC:  Tell me about the assessment process you used for your efficiency courses–you developed a rubric for your instructors to assess JTA skills and knowledge and adapted that for your solar PV courses. How did this come to pass, and are you satisfied with the results? Do you feel your students benefit from this process.

WE: Yes, very much so! They know for sure if they got it or not, and in real time. Success also builds on their self-esteem and motivates them to go on.

The primary force behind the rubric, the institutional matrix, came from CDMU’s Vice Chair, Tom Vessella, who developed it for the weatherization curriculum.  It was such a good idea, I borrowed it for the solar PV side of our curriculum. Our assessment process is competency-based. Using industry standards and JTAs to develop our training model, we developed a student and teacher form that made it easy to track students as they mastered each skill.  For us, we’re more interested in competency to a specific standard more than a specific amount of time or test score.

IREC: Since LATTC’s students benefit from the process, I guess it goes without saying that it prepares them well for the real-world.  Did I understand that DOE recognized you for this training model? Have you replicated this training model in the other areas of curriculum, i.e., the trades?

WE:  Most definitely. Since the tasks they perform are the same as the industry has stated, and we perform them in real world mock ups of buildings, they’re getting the best kind of real-world experience. DOE did recognize us for our Wx programs, and of course, we achieved IREC’s credential for Accredited Training Provider, so we’re feeling good about our work. As far as replicating this in other areas of curriculum, yes, we have in solar, and we’ve begun to implement this into our electrician and plumbing programs.

IREC: Are the classes in both PV and energy efficiency popular?

WE: Our solar PV class is very popular, typically a 60/40 mix of our electricians and others looking to get into solar.

Our efficiency classes are slowly gaining popularity with our carpentry students and others.  The classes are usually full from employers in the industry sending us their folks.  Public interest in Building Performance Institute (BPI) certifications is also on the rise.

IREC: Do you track your students after they leave LATTC? Are they finding work in both the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors because they’re so well trained for the jobs that are out there?

WE: We have only tracked the students who were directly involved with the ARRA grant.  We know well over 250 were trained and placed.  We’ve not tracked our other solar and efficiency students to date, but since the passage of Proposition 39 (The California Clean Energy Jobs Act) on November 6, 2012, community colleges like LATTC will be receiving money for projects that create jobs while improving energy efficiency and expanding clean energy generation in California. While I’m not familiar with all the elements of Prop 39, I believe that connecting graduates with employers is part of the program.

IREC: Have you heard from your students who are now working in the field that they were well trained at LATTC? 

WE: Yes, they do come back.  We have alumni awards, some have come as guest speakers. In fact, I’ve hired several of them as adjunct professors or part time faculty.  Most of our full-time professors graduated from LATTC.  And yes, they come back to recruit. Very often, we’re the first place employers look to.

IREC: That must make you feel like you’re doing things right. What makes LATTC’s training programs unique?

WE:  We have an 87-year history of training in the trades and a different approach to how we teach. I’d say, without question, the fact that we have all of the trade programs on campus; we don’t have to look very far for expertise—it’s already here.  Like I said earlier, it was much more cost effective for us to ‘green’ our existing programs than it was to start them from scratch. Our classes break down to 1/3 lecture and 2/3 hands-on. We have 34 work stations which make our lab program sustainable as far as regular state apportioned funding is concerned. We really take a very hands-on approach to training, and rely less on traditional ‘chalk and talk’ methods.

IREC: What’s surprised you the most about this work?

WE: Historically, each of the trades (i.e., plumbing, electrician, HVAC, carpentry, etc.) was separate, not known for interacting with each other.  But the renewable/green fields changed the game. To make it work, we all had to work together training our faculty to teach in these new areas.  This cooperation helped break down many of the traditional teaching and department barriers and bled over into all of the teaching areas. That surprised me, and happily, several years later, it is still working.

IREC:  What’s next in the queue?

WE: Developing actual degree programs for our students. We have nine new state recognized certificates in PV, hot water, and energy efficiency, from general labor up to crew leader.  Next in the queue is building out and offering on a continuing basis all of the classes in our new programs.  We’ve started expanding and linking our plumbing, supply water, wastewater, and solid waste programs together and greening those career paths.

IREC: Some say it’s not easy being green, but it seems you’re making it work well here at LATTC.

WE:  We need to take renewable energy and other green practices into consideration for everything we do.  We need to make sure that everyone has the knowledge to know why this is important, and have the skills to be part of the clean energy workforce.

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