by Jane Pulaski

I was at the 2011 clean energy workforce education conference in Saratoga Springs NY last month where almost 500 cognoscenti in the world of clean energy education gathered to share their extraordinary work in this space. This is the fourth time NYSERDA has sponsored the conference (IREC’s been the conference organizer for each of them).

Despite dismal weather and the specter of budget cuts, attendees were pumped.  Old acquaintances were renewed; new friendships forged. Conversations happened everywhere: in the halls, in nearby watering holes and restaurants, in the exhibit hall.  Hundreds of business cards were exchanged. Everyone seemed to know each other and their work.  It felt more like a love fest.  At the moment, it’s still a small, intimate group of astonishingly devoted educators who are training today’s workforce.  But their work continues to influence and inspire.

This gathering didn’t spring up overnight.  It’s been going on since 2004, when IREC convened a group of 40, including community colleges, training associations, non-profits, state organizations to discuss standards-based curriculum for renewable energy practitioners and technicians.  This was the first time such a group met, and two years later, the first national conference on clean energy workforce education was held at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, NY.  Back then, a small group of 200 educators, administrators, and industry attended, but it was important because it identified the issues and cemented the importance of bringing together these communities to share best practices, curricula and formalize a national network.   From that point on, there was no putting the genie back in the bottle.

In 2008, the second conference was held, again at HVCC.  This time, more than 350 people showed up.  Before that conference was over, attendees were asking when and where the next one would be.

You already know where I’m going with this…

The 2009 conference in Albany was sold out.  More than 500 cognoscenti in the world of clean energy education, from 36 states and five countries (including a German delegation of vocational education experts) filled meeting rooms to capacity.  Speakers expounded on increased student enrollment (thanks to ARRA funding); others were concerned there might be too much training and not enough jobs.   Before the 2009 conference was over, plans were on underway for the 2011 conference.

This year, budget cuts and bad weather contributed to a slightly lower turnout than in 2009, but this year’s conference was no less muscular in its message.  In her opening remarks, IREC’s Jane Weissman urged attendees to consider four ‘how-to’s’:

  1. How to sustain quality training in an era of budget cuts
  2. How to not saturate the market with too much training and not enough jobs;
  3. How to continue to raise the bar for quality training; and
  4. How to not promote best practices when they aren’t.

“If quality is jeopardized at the trainer/practitioner level, that’s our problem to solve,” she said.  “It’s still our time to make a big difference.”

All of the 80 presentations from the conference are on IREC’s website.