Behold the Future: Building the Educational Pipeline for the Solar Workforce in Central Illinois

Kankakee County, Illinois, population of 112,000 and home of Kankakee Community College (KCC), is Tim Wilhelm country. A physics major from Kent State, Wilhelm’s past 20 years at KCC include an adjunct professor, student and graduate, and since 2006, the impresario of its Electrical Technology Program (ETP) focused on building a highly-qualified, well-trained clean energy workforce in Central Illinois. For such a small, rural community college some 66 miles southwest of Chicago, KCC’s ETP is raising community awareness and building the pipeline for a clean energy economy by promoting quality educational standards for a clean energy workforce writ large.

Helping Wilhelm is Jennifer Martin, a 15-year marketing expert with a sustainable energy degree. She’s also the C4 project coordinator for KCC’s National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. It’s the NSF grant that has awakened the community, raising awareness that high-quality training is essential to develop a skilled solar workforce.

L to R: Jennifer Martin, Tim Wilhelm, David Warner, Dr. Michael Boyd

KCC Accepting the 2014 IREC Accredited Training Program of the Year award in Las Vegas. L to R: Jennifer Martin, Tim Wilhelm, David Warner (IREC Chair), Dr. Michael Boyd

In October of this year, KCC was awarded IREC accredited training provider of the year. In 2013, Tim was awarded IREC clean energy trainer of the year (Tim is an IREC certified master trainer). Will KCC go for a trifecta of IREC awards in 2015?

Between more-than-full teaching loads, Tim and Jennifer have been deeply involved in the design of KCC’s new 21K square foot renewable energy training facility slated to open in Spring 2015. Despite their furious work pace, Tim and Jennifer were gracious to make time to talk with IREC about their work; why they believe credentials are the gold standard for instruction, and how they see KCC as a change maker and a conduit to building a vibrant, local solar job market in Central Illinois.

IREC: I just watched a video of you and your students installing a system at a local junior high school (great video, by the way). Is this installation part of the hands-on portion of your solar PV class?

PrairieCentralJHSTW: This is the capstone project for students in the introduction to solar PV technology course. This is not just book-learning. It gives our students hands-on experience, working on a real renewable energy system on campus or in the community. We were contacted by Prairie Central junior high’s science teacher who wanted a solar array for the classroom. The science teacher at Prairie Central acquired grant money for the project and our renewable energy students installed the system. Including its required prerequisite courses, this terminal course constitutes our IREC-accredited program.

IREC: How many students are in the renewable energy program? Besides hands-on training, what does their education look like?

TW: We’ve see about 40 students annually in our electrical technology program which offers an applied science degree with a renewable energy track. In that renewable energy track, we offer three renewable energy certificates: solar PV, solar thermal and small wind. If students want to pursue a bachelor’s degree, they’re well prepared to enter bachelors programs with junior status at select college and universities. In fact, KCC is the only community college in the U.S. with an articulation agreement (meaning our students get priority admission) with Illinois State University (ISU), which was the first university in the country where you can major in renewable energy.

IREC: Nice! Have any KCC students pursued that?

TW:   Three so far. One is currently employed with NextEra, another one is in the biomass industry. Because this region doesn’t have solar manufacturing or installation projects here –yet—we do encourage our students to relocate where the jobs are. Our students are enormously qualified for entry-level positions in any electrical job, and as those solar jobs ultimately come to this region, they’ll be the first in line for those. We do, however, have lots of utility-scale wind in this area. We’ve graduated 12 students who are currently working in the utility-scale wind sector. Their employers give them (and KCC) strong accolades for being so well prepared for the workforce.

IREC: So KCC’s small wind training is applicable and relevant for utility-scale wind?


Tim Wilhelm and students in KCC’s small wind technology course

TW: There’s a lot of cross over. They’re learning all the same basic principles: wind dynamics, site analysis, fluid power, relay logic, programmable logic controllers, troubleshooting, and maintenance of systems. They’re also trained in tower work. When they complete this training, they will have their CITCA certification for wind tower and nacelle climb safety and rescue.

IREC: Jennifer, you’re KCC’s C4 project coordinator for KCC’s National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. What does C4 stand for, and how does your work mesh with Tim’s?

JM: Our NSF grant is an advanced technology education grant. C4, aka Community Colleges Confronting the Conundrum, is a collaboration of solar manufacturers, renewable energy businesses, employers, homeowners, and local governments focused on building the solar and clean energy workforce here in this region. Though the job market here in this region isn’t as robust as it is in California or New Jersey, we’re readying our workforce so they’re well-trained and prepared for the imminent jobs in our region. Incidentally, components of the C4 project are being replicated at community colleges in Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

TW: If I can jump in here with a word about the way the community college world functions. Local job demand affects courses offered. Insufficient job demand makes selling a certain curriculum extremely difficult if not impossible. Thanks to this NSF grant, we’re able to teach solar courses. It makes it easy for us to show the administration that this curriculum is appropriate and will ultimately benefit the local and regional job markets.

IREC: Tell me more about the C4 project collaboration. Who are they? What’s its impact on the local community?

JM: It’s a strong team, including IREC, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA), the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN), the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), and DOE’s SunShot Initiative. We work with principals, counselors and teachers at local high schools to introduce students to solar energy concepts, especially those with an aptitude for math, science, electrical/mechanical and technology. We really see it as a way to nurture a pipeline of junior and high school students who are interested in pursuing renewable energy as a career. We want these kids to know KCC is a local resource for them, readying them for careers in the clean energy workforce.

IREC: And the local community? Do they know you exist and the work you’re doing?

JM: That’s where Power Pack Kankakee comes in, the solar market development piece of this project. We and the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) host Power Hour, a free one-hour educational session for homeowners and businesses about the basics of solar (think Solar 101). It’s very informal; Tim and MREA do those extremely popular sessions. In addition to doing them here in Illinois, we’ve done Power Hours in Minnesota and Michigan.

IREC: Do you get any leads from those sessions?


Jennifer Martin (center) with KCC’s ELTR2334 PV class performing a site assessment

JM: The short answer is yes. The library in McHenry County installed solar this past spring after attending one of our Power Hours. We’ve got nine mentored residential solar site assessments completed by our students in last spring’s PV course. We’re in follow-up mode with the MREA, Power Pack installers and the customers now to see how those have blossomed.

IREC: Tim, you’ve got a number of credentials to your name; obviously you believe in them. Why did you add the IREC credentials to your personal credential list, as well as that for KCC? What’s the advantage?

TW: Credentials come down to credibility and reputation. When you’re credentialed by an outside third party with a strong reputation (like IREC), it adds credibility to what you’re doing. It benefits the program and the students. When a student can show on his/her resume that they completed their training from an accredited institution like KCC, that serves that student well and differentiates them from the others. It’s a no-brainer.

IREC: What are the biggest challenges to starting & maintaining a quality training program in clean energy space at a school like KCC? No doubt support from the administration is crucial to building and nurturing a program like this.

TW: We couldn’t do this without the support of the administration. They’ve been a major player in our success. We’ve got a remarkable team here at KCC and with our partners. We’ve worked hard, but when the results are so positive, it reinforces the decisions to continue this work to build and nurture a quality clean energy workforce in Central Illinois.

Other challenges are what one would expect in any new educational endeavor: sufficient funding for lab equipment; finding qualified and quality instructors; and, developing sufficient student enrollment to justify the program.

IREC: Not inconsequential. What would you suggest to community colleges interested in pursuing a clean energy curriculum?

TW: Take advantage of the “ah-ha” moments while researching the successes and failures of other clean energy training efforts. For example, in areas like ours where clean energy jobs are not yet plentiful, a singular degree or certificate in a specific renewable technology has not been shown to have long-term success. Most clean energy technologies fall into the work-world of electrical technicians – PV, hydro, wind energy, ocean waves and tidal currents, etc.

KCC_PrairieCentralJHS6Armed with these realizations, we crafted a singular AAS degree in Electrical Technology with four unique focus tracks: industrial machinery maintenance; industrial electrical technology; instrumentation and process control; and renewable energy technology. Whichever focus track a student selects, they are taking nearly all the same electrical courses and general education courses as students in the other tracks. Only three or four courses differentiate one track from another. Those students who complete their degree in the renewable energy track are fully qualified for entry-level jobs in just about any electrical venue. As clean energy jobs emerge in our area, they will be more qualified than any other area applicants competing for those critical new jobs.

IREC: An objective of KCC’s PV program is to reach out to students from under-represented and minority groups. Jennifer, you worked with Pembroke Junior High, right? Tell us about that.

Tim talking solar to students at Pembroke JHS

Wilhelm talking solar to students at Pembroke JHS

JM: Pembroke is one of 17 townships in Kankakee County, and historically one of the most, if not the most, impoverished in Illinois. Nationally, it’s rated as one of the poorest. About a year ago, Tim went to Pembroke junior high school and talked to more than 100 students about solar. Soon after, they invited me to be a judge at their science fair. I was amazed to see that some 80% of their projects were solar-related. That’s some impact!

IREC: Maybe you’ll see some of those budding solar scientists in your classes in a few years, Tim, perhaps in your new state-of-the-art facility. How’s that coming along? What’s the time frame?

TW: They tell us construction will begin in Spring 2015. It’s designed to LEED gold and built specifically for our program. We’ll have four classrooms, one of which is specifically for NEC and wiring. There are separate smart rooms (with computers) for solar thermal, solar PV and small wind. The large, south-facing roof above the classrooms is designed for PV and solar thermal installations. The indoor labs will have plenty of headroom to accommodate pipes and wiring, all of which will connect to the training roof. Our small wind lab will have scaffolding and ladders for night and winter tower training. It’s really going to be remarkable. We’re anticipating a substantial bump in enrollment. After all, we’re building the pipeline for the current and future solar workforce right here in Central Illinois at KCC. Bring ‘em: we’re ready!

IREC: Maybe IREC can wrangle an invite to the ribbon cutting…can you put in a good word for us? It’s always inspiring to talk with you both, to see your deep sense of purpose happen. You’re making an impressive impact in the world of clean energy education.


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