Illinois Community Colleges Find "Green" Jobs Training Programs A Success

Jul 1, 2013

Getting the right training has long been considered key to finding a good job.  But in a changing and still sluggish economy, that often hasn’t been enough to guarantee employment. Green energy programs at some Illinois community colleges, however, are seeing success rates of close to one hundred percent.

David Vrtol worked for several Illinois wind farms before helping develop the first wind technician program in the state, at Highland Community College, in the middle of the last decade.  Vrtol says Highland’s program was prompted by the industry’s need for qualified workers.  He says the program has become even more valuable for those seeking a job in the field today. 

“Now that the manufacturer knows that they have the option of choosing that individual with a degree over somebody else that does not, even though they might have more hands-on experience, a lot of the manufacturers  want to see that well-rounded individual.”

A similar wind tech program was begun a couple of years ago at Illinois Valley Community College. The school’s Dean of Technical and Career Programs, Dr. Elaine Novak, says based on the numbers, the demand for technicians is bound to increase.

“There are 700 active turbines in the IVCC service area and it’s my understanding that that’s going to double. So, 1400 turbines within a couple of years.”

Credit Dual Freq

Vrtol and Novak say most graduates of their programs have gotten jobs right away.  Surprisingly, Vrtol says, not all were what is usually considered a “green” job.

“For example Ultrasonic and Burner Foods here locally has hired on a number of our individuals, based just solely on their mechanical and electrical ability.”

While Vrtol is enthusiastic about wind energy, he says it will always be just a part, although an important one, in the energy mix.

Figuring out what that energy mix should be is behind the Sustainable Energy Systems Program started a few years ago at Rock Valley Community College. Its chairman, Professor Steve Fleeman, says the college didn’t want to duplicate programs already in place, like that at Highland.  Instead, they saw an opportunity to go broader.

“I think we’ve come up with people that can serve as consultants to companies, residences about how to apply the various technologies: weatherization, energy efficiency as far as lighting is concerned, heating, cooling, and then of course the renewable energy sources, whether it be microhydro, fuel cells, small wind turbines and photovoltaics."

Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Fleeman, too, has seen graduates who got jobs not fitting that description, because companies liked the knowledge and skills they had acquired in the program.  But he says there’s definitely a market for those that stay within the field, as businesses, municipalities and individuals look at ways to manage energy use in a more economical and sustainable manner.

Fleeman says every one of the program’s graduates last year either got a job, or in a few cases, decided to pursue a further degree in the field. Vrtol and Novak report similar results.

RVC Professor Steve Fleeman, Chair of the college's Sustainable Energy Systems program
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Right now the programs are relatively small; Rock Valley had 16 people graduate last year. Highland and Illinois Valley each have a limit of about twenty. Novak says that’s partly because of general budget constraints. But everyone expects the numbers to grow, and additional sections to be added. In the meantime, Novak says, based on her experience at Illinois Valley, interest in the programs is very high.

“The first window of opportunity is online registration. Historically, all spots have been taken by the online registration, so I would not wait until you can meet face-to-face to register.”

Novak, Vrtol and Fleeman all say anyone interested in the wind or sustainable energy fields better get in line early. But, they say, this rapidly expanding field is begging for people with the right training -- even if you have to wait for an opening.