April 21, 2010

Interview with Sarah White, Center on Wisconsin Strategy: How credentials can build a competitive, green energy workforce

Last week, we posted Sarah White and colleague’s, Greener Skills: How Credentials Create Value in the Clean Energy Economy, a brilliant report that makes the case for a national policy of portable, transparent, industry-specific credentials — and state-supported pathways up to them.  The report outlines critical, early steps toward a national credentialing system for clean…

Last week, we posted Sarah White and colleague’s, Greener Skills: How Credentials Create Value in the Clean Energy Economy, a brilliant report that makes the case for a national policy of portable, transparent, industry-specific credentials — and state-supported pathways up to them.  The report outlines critical, early steps toward a national credentialing system for clean energy workers.  It mentions well-known credentialing programs, like ISPQ, NABCEP and LEED.  I wanted to know more.  Sarah’s been on the road a lot, consuming much coffee.   She was kind enough to talk with IREC about how credentials are part of the calculus in building a competent, competitive green energy workforce.  Here’s our  conversation.  jp

IREC:  Sarah, this is a beautifully written piece.  Like I said, it reads more like a magazine article than a scholarly report.  I found it hopeful, even though our track record for building a competent and fair education and training system is, well, less than successful.

SW:  It’s a funny line to walk—it’s hopeful, frustrating, and exhausting.  Still, we believe that the current excitement about the new energy economy, and concern about national competitiveness, can be leveraged to finally achieve progress on reforming our fractured education and training system.

IREC:  That’s a huge order. Apart from our general distaste for national standards, don’t employers want workers who have at least some skill sets for the job, whatever it is?

SW:  Absolutely. If you look at what employers want, they want a fair degree of basic skills, like reading, math, perhaps some advanced technical and teamwork skills. If it’s very technology specific, they’ll teach it on the job. In the past couple of decades, employers know they need a more nimble workforce, and so do workers because they’ll do a number of different jobs in their working lives.  The additional advantage — and critical value-added, really — of a certified labor force, is that it offers some guarantee on quality of work. Employers are looking for ways to reduce their search costs for new employees and increase their confidence that new hires possess at least a foundation of basic vocational skills (both analytic and social) on which they can build.

IREC: So how do you start to think about this?  Do you think first about the training program, or do you think about the job?

SW: You start with the job. That’s the best way to serve both workers and employers. Historically, we haven’t started with the jobs; we’ve started with the training program.  Unfortunately, excitement about green jobs has exacerbated this trend. Program administrators claim they know their local labor market, but there’s not always a deep engagement with industry.  Green jobs are a perfect example of this.  There’s a lot of federal money for green jobs, the technology is sexy—it seems like every community college wants to set up a wind program because they’ll get money and it’s fun to show off the technologies to potential students and donors.   If every campus were to fully train people, we’d have more trained wind workers than we need.  We always emphasize, you need to start with the job.

IREC:  But doesn’t industry know what it needs?

SW:  Industry knows best what that job will look like, yes.  We’ve spent years working to build industry partnerships (they’re now also called sector strategies) around any given industry.  When you build partnerships, you bring business, education, labor, public workforce and community groups to the table.  Critical labor market data has a few years lag in it—today’s occupational projections, for example, don’t include full recession data.  Industry partnerships provide real-time data on hiring and skill gaps, and can help figure out what kind of training is needed. So it’s a constant dialog in the community that helps drive both economic and worker development.

IREC:  If you’re saying there’s still a mismatch between what employers need and the skills that workers have, that would seem to bolster the need for credentialing programs.  Employers don’t want people showing up at their doors without the right skill sets, regardless of the industry, but especially in the energy fields.  Just replacing retiring utility workers is a real challenge. Where will they come from?

SW:  Our focus on energy jobs isn’t political; it’s realistic.  In five years, when those people retire, we’ll have a skills gap.   Think about it:  the workforce we have today is the one we’ll have 20 years from now.  The current population of people coming up (K-12) is not enough to replace the current workforce.  Think about those workers in dead-end jobs, or those who have just been laid off and must do something else.  We’ve got to get them the basic skills into industries that need them. That’s the thing that will build a workforce to meet industry demand.  But figuring out that transfer of skills and knowledge is a big job. When we look at the credentialing system, we know that we can’t train our way out of a recession, but we can surely fix up the supply side of the equation.

IREC:  IREC’s ISPQ, a prestigious and rigorous credentialing program for renewable energy training programs and instructors, is a perfect tool to shore up the supply side.  Pat Fox, ISPQ’s Director, says they’re experiencing a 237% increase in credentials awarded over the same period last year.  Where there’s a critical labor need, it would follow that credentialing programs would be in hot demand, for both workers and training programs.

SW:  Yes, but this is hard.   One of the things we found: the way workforce development writ large—for education and training of all kinds—is a spaghetti junction of diplomas and certificates and pathways—it’s crazy. It makes sense to have some sort of standard credentials, but realistically, a national credential pushes up against local efforts.  How do you standardize without losing innovations at the local level?  And there are lots of people who are put off by a national skills standard.  Instead of saying: ‘see, we tried that and it didn’t work,’ the answer is to take what we learned and do it better.  One of the key things to help with this argument: we need reform because we need to be competitive. It’s increasingly clear that our current system isn’t delivering results for either workers or industry.

IREC:  Training happens all over the U.S., through community colleges or apprenticeship programs.

SW:  Yes, apprenticeship programs are the original career pathways — a system that combines work and learning on the way to a family-supporting job –and are some of the best. But construction is a tough labor market right now, with massive unemployment.  We’re building better access through apprenticeships—but there are thousands qualified who can’t find jobs.  Community colleges are working to provide better transitions (quicker, more accessible) to occupational credentials and jobs – both for the gal who is laid off at the auto plant, graduated from high school a long time ago, and doesn’t remember how to go school; and for the young man who never connected to the labor market and doesn’t have the basic academic or English skills to pursue a credential that will open the door to a decent job. One of the great things about the energy efficiency and renewable energy sectors, is that they can generate lots of decent jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree, though they will need a fair amount of training. Our challenge is to get more people ready for those jobs as the economy recovers.

IREC:  So even if we weren’t in a recession, building a clean energy workforce would still be difficult.  But isn’t the process to educate and train workers still the same?  You still want industry and labor sitting down and figuring out who needs what and how soon it can happen.

SW: Absolutely.  Ideally, you want industry and workers at table describing what they do and what they need, designing curricula around that to help a majority of Americans get into decent jobs. We can make decent rational argument around this.  Still, it’s hard to get industry and labor to talk to make it work. Some states are doing it: Washington State did fantastic job with its Wind Technician skill standard, and the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership has been doing this with great success for two decades.. But we’re not a culture that’s good at waiting.  We want it yesterday—hurry up, get us the trained workforce now.  It’s the very ethos of the Recovery investments—we want to see good, solid outcomes, yes, and we want to see them quickly.

IREC:   Exactly why credentials are a big part of the solution.  Early on, IREC nailed it:  identifying the problem, the need, sorting through all the noise to come up with ISPQ, a quality national credentialing program for training programs and instructors that will result in a competitive workforce based on solid competencies.

SW: One key to a green economy is revitalizing our industrial heartland.  Construction jobs don’t go away; those are local jobs. But the manufacturing industry can be re-domesticated as well. Just the cost of shipping things (i.e., the cost of oil) makes producing locally a lot of business sense.  All of these issues center around the need for skilled workers, and unless we develop and implement a rational system of credentials, business has no clear way to know who’s trained to do what, and workers have no decent way to show what they’ve learned and why it’s valuable and a benefit to American families.

IREC:  I couldn’t agree more.  It’s a good thing we have such smart people like you (and IREC) working on this.  This area is evolving so quickly.  Will you come back and talk with us again?  Thanks so much, Sarah, for your work, and for the conversation.

Download Greener Skills: How Credentials Create Value in the Clean Energy Economy