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What’s NJ’s record in training people for clean-energy jobs? It’s complicated (NJ Spotlight)

July 8, 2022

A worker at an offshore wind turbine

Credit: (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

In 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy announced his goal of having the state use 100% clean energy by 2050, helping put New Jersey in the forefront of the expanding green-energy economy. Solar energy, offshore wind and other renewable energy technologies would boom, advocates and economists said, bringing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars into the state.

But where the people who will work these new “green jobs” would come from has been a question New Jersey, like many states, has been facing for years.

A new push is underway by New Jersey’s career and technical education programs to help fill the pipeline, with programs being launched and expanded and old partnerships revived to address the likely need to fill thousands of jobs in the next decades.

That need has factored heavily in the development of new programs and expansion of others in Bergen County, according to the head of that county’s career and technical education.

“What we see is a massive need for welders in the state of New Jersey where there’s just not enough welders, and it’s actually a great career path,” said Michael Miceli, the district supervisor of Life, Science and Career Technical Education at Bergen County technical schools.

In its public schools, New Jersey currently groups career and technical education programs into 16 clusters and 79 career pathways such as agriculture, food and natural resources, art, business management and administration, and construction. More than 77,000 students are on such pathways, roughly a fifth of the high school population.

Finding instructors, students

Preparing for a green-energy future also comes with challenges, including the overhaul of these schools’ traditional missions and facilities but also just attracting instructors and students into these new fields. That hasn’t stopped programs from expanding, especially in South Jersey, which is expected to see explosive growth in the offshore wind industry with the approval of massive wind farms off the New Jersey coastline.

Funded through a state economic development grant, Gloucester County Institute of Technology recently expanded its welding and painting programs to help prepare students for careers in the manufacture of heavy steel offshore wind components.

Michael Miceli: ‘What we see is a massive need for welders in the state of New Jersey where there’s just not enough welders.’

Students will also be trained for jobs at the nearby Paulsboro Marine Terminal — a $250 million state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to build massive steel monopiles, or foundations for offshore wind turbines.

A similar program was announced this month in Salem County, where the New Jersey Economic Development Authority has awarded $200,000 to Salem County Vocational Technical School to support its offshore wind-related painting and welding programs.

Due to its high job placement rate upon graduation, “historically, welding has been one of our most popular programs,” said Jason Helder, the school’s principal.

“So as we collaborated with NJEDA and they talked to us about the need for submerged arc welding, which is a process different from what we’d been teaching up to that point, it seemed like a natural fit,” he said.

‘Lots of jobs for painters’

“But it’s not just welding,” said Helder. “There are also going to be lots of jobs for painters. We have an auto collision repair program where students work with different types of spray paints — primarily to spray and repair vehicles — but a lot of the process is also used to paint these turbines.”

A year from now, the Salem school will expand its welding shop with funding from a recent bond act voters approved to support such technical training.

High school and postsecondary students can also start training on submerged arc welding in the coming school year. In addition to state funding, this development is facilitated by the Salem County Career and Technical High school district’s partnership with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Paulsboro terminal developer EEW, and Cumberland and Gloucester County vocational schools to train instructors throughout the region.

This is not entirely new terrain for New Jersey’s county-run career and technical schools.

In 2007, Todd Menadier — then a chemistry and physics teacher at Essex County’s Bloomfield Tech — started tinkering with the idea of a green technology program.

In those days New Jersey had begun to implement programs supporting the use of clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydroelectricity. “And we just happened to have a forward-thinking superintendent at the time, who jumped on the concept and helped me with networking and introduced me to folks at PSEG, where we were able to get some grant funding to kick off the project,” said Menadier.

Starting with a cohort of about 15 students, he eventually developed a four-year program that explored different clean and renewable energy types.

“We did things like build a solar panel, which was cool. We learned about soldering and connecting things in a parallel circuit versus in series,” said Chris Pines, a student in Bloomfield Tech’s first Green Energy Academy class. “We learned about hydrogen fuel cell cars and actually went to competitions.”

First statewide program

By 2009, New Jersey was one of five states selected by the U.S. Department of Education and its National Research Center for Career and Technical Education to participate in an effort to develop “green-focused” CTE (career and technical education) programs. That year, the state’s Office of Career and Technical Education partnered with the Essex County Vocational-Technical School District to develop New Jersey’s first statewide Green Program of Study. School instructors, college faculty and industry representatives began collaborating on curricula for the four-year program to prepare students for jobs in three identified career pathways: green construction, sustainable design and architecture, and sustainable energy.

Workers install solar panels

Credit: (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

Within a year county vo-techs in Bergen, Camden, Cape May, Hunterdon, and Passaic counties became Green Program of Study pilot districts, with Middlesex County joining in 2011 and Bergenfield High School in 2012. “That’s really where we started on that path of trying to learn more about this concept of sustainability, and I’d say it’s been more than fruitful,” said Pines, who now works for Tesla as an operations adviser.

In 2012 Pines and his classmates graduated from Bloomfield Tech’s first class of Green Energy Academy students. By then, the academy’s curriculum had become a model for the New Jersey Green Program of Study, soon adopted by vocational-technical schools across the state.

Gesny Val, another member of the 2012 class, studied industrial engineering as an undergraduate. and is now an associated supply planning manager at Unilever in Englewood.

What succeeded Bloomfield Tech

Much has changed since their days with the Green Energy Academy. Bloomfield Tech closed in 2018, as did North 13th Street Tech in Newark, with the new Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark eventually replacing both schools.

“They’ve got a brand new shiny building now,” said Val, referring to the Newark campus. “When I was in college, I visited a couple of times, and it was nice that some of our projects were still hanging up on the wall, still being used to teach other students about green-energy principles.

“There was a bike that I helped build, and it was still there.” Val said. “That was pretty cool to see.”

In New Jersey and nationwide, these programs are funded by the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) based on their ability to prepare students for high-wage, in-demand, or high-skill jobs. In New Jersey, the funding came to more than $26 million in the last fiscal year split between high schools and community colleges.

An electrician with four decades of work experience, Timothy Reagan has taught for 16 years at Bergen Country Technical School, where he  focuses on the building trades. He said the Green Program of Study provided direction,  certification courses and the opportunity to visit other schools and meet with sustainable industry professionals.

“Where did it go? I don’t know, to be honest with you,” he said, referring to the Green Program of Study. “But as a result of participating, more science was brought into the building trades course.”

Despite a promising start and support from the state Department of Education and industry partners, the 2014 – 2015 school year was likely the last time the state utilized the NJ Green Program of Study curriculum. Some aspects of the program remain.

New partnerships

At Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools, a partnership has been forged with the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where Middlesex graduating students move into the university’s programs.

Schools have also partnered with corporate and other private organizations to help train the next generation of green-energy workers. The EDA, supported by funding from the Board of Public Utilities has pressed for such initiatives. In 2020, the utilities board provided $4.5 million in support of EDA-run offshore and wind workforce development projects including those that create pathways for students and workers pursuing careers in the offshore wind industry.

“A few years back, Governor Murphy established the Wind Council, which was this cross-agency effort to look specifically at the workforce and research and innovation needs for the offshore wind sector and how to position New Jersey as a hub for these efforts,” said Jen Becker, EDA’s managing director of Wind Institute Development.

Last year, EDA distributed more than $8000,000 to Rowan College of South Jersey to launch a training program for offshore wind turbine technicians and $3 million to Atlantic Cape Community College to establish an industry-recognized Global Wind Organization safety training program and facility. The grants were awarded as part of two offshore wind tech and training challenges that saw community colleges across the state competing for monies.

Turbine technicians

In addition to training people for immediate renewable energy jobs in manufacturing and construction, the EDA is also looking to future, long-term roles like that of turbine technician that will help ensure offshore wind structures are maintained once installed. Becker says the college programs that received the EDA funds had to demonstrate strong viability, collaboration with labor union groups, and a commitment to training individuals over time and opening these career paths to a diverse pool of job seekers.

Michelle Boden, who is the EDA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, emphasized the potential of renewable energy industries such as offshore wind — which has a projected worth of $100 billion — in supporting economic and environmental justice in New Jersey as well and bringing jobs to marginalized communities.

Not just another day at the office: A worker stands on a platform at an offshore wind farm

Credit: (apn Photo/Ingo Wagner, Pool)

Training and job creation in the state’s offshore wind sector helps to “establish this industry very early on to be inclusive, equitable, and accessible to all — especially those that historically have been disenfranchised,” Boden said.

Two private companies — Solar Landscape and GAF Academy — teamed up with Edison Job Corps to provide solar installation and roofing industry training to students beginning in 2020.

Job Corps, a 50-year-old residential career training program offers people in the 16 – 24 age group the opportunity to earn a high school diploma through partnerships with local schools and equips them with the skills needed to enter various careers and enroll in higher education.

Solar roofing

GAF, which had a previous business relationship with Solar Landscape, partnered with it to conduct classes for beginners who receive residential, commercial, and solar roofing training.

“I teach the roofing techniques, and then (Solar Landscape) will teach the solar techniques,” said Dan Caivano, Roofing Academy Lead-East for GAF, the nation’s largest roofing materials manufacturer.

“I was the carpentry and green construction teacher at Union County vo-tech,” said Cavaino, “and we were exploring sustainable construction and conservation while still using traditional construction methods. So [students] would learn about energy-efficient homes and solar energy, geothermal heating, cooling, insulation — all of the mechanics that go into a net-zero home.”

As part of the state’s community solar program, Solar Landscape has committed to providing workforce development for residents in locations such Perth Amboy, where two of its larger community solar projects are based. The company reports having trained more than 600 adults in solar installation last year with plans to surpass that number in 2022.

One 2020 graduate is Ricky Gas, who got a job working on the Perth Amboy projects and introduced Murphy at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when the facilities came online.

“I started taking a solar installation training class through Solar Landscape because I wanted a career that could provide for my family and my future,” said Gas, 25, of Linden.

Earning potential

As a certified solar roof installer in New Jersey, Gas can earn an hourly wage of $22. Also, installers who, like Gas, work on federally funded public projects, including community solar sites, stand to make a prevailing wage of up $65 an hour.

Nonprofit community groups have also sought to get involved in training. Isles of Trenton manages a wide array of programs, including solar installation training, said chief operating officer John Hart.

Sean McDonald: ‘When we start programs, the most difficult thing in career and technical education is finding instructors.’

Founded in 1981, the community development and environmental organization runs an alternative high school and the Center for Energy and Environmental Training, which, according to its website, has trained and certified 3,500 people pursuing energy and environmental health careers.

Andre Thomas, who once attended Isles’ alternative high school, has worked as a training manager at the organization for 20 years.

“I grew up a Trenton, and in the eighties. I got into trouble, was on the wrong path, and had to go to prison for nonviolent offenses. I got caught up in the crime bill, but I came home in 1997 and started working in a warehouse,” said Thomas. “I began to volunteer and talk to some of these kids who were just like me, struggling to find their way. Then I discovered Isles.”

Years later, Thomas continues to help others pursue green-energy jobs in fields like weatherization.

Hard to meet demand

Even with all these efforts underway, it has been difficult to keep up with the demand for skilled workers.

“When we start programs, the most difficult thing in career and technical education is finding instructors,” says Sean McDonald, director of career and technical educational at Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools. “Often, we run into a dilemma of, if you’re coming out of the industry and coming into teaching, you’re most likely going to take a pay cut.”

“To try to convince someone that this is an amazing field of education, and we’re preparing the workers of tomorrow to have amazing careers that will help all of us. The reality is that I still need to put food on the table and support my family. So can I afford to do that?” he said.

A dearth of instructors is not the only challenge.

“There are not enough kids necessarily going in our CTE construction trades and other areas. And we’re not having a lot of students in the college looking at teaching these things as well,” says Clare Kennedy, a horticulture teacher at Bergen County Academies and Bergen County Technical Schools.

There is some hope that new funding earmarked for programs will allow for adaptations and facility improvements that will make them more attractive to students.

In 2018, New Jerseyans voted to award $500 million in bonds to school districts and county colleges. In the first round of grants funded by that borrowing, approximately $220.2 million went to county vocational school districts for construction projects that promised to increase student capacity and prepare students for high-demand technical careers.

Sustainable practices

Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools plan to put their grant funding toward a new Center for Sustainability and Innovation in East Brunswick. The center will house facilities for five new programs: sustainable construction and environmental technology; logistics, robotics, and drone technology; information communication, and cybersecurity; biotechnology and plant science; and sustainable energy technology.

The Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools project — which could open by September 2024 — has an advisory committee of industry and education partners, including Solar Landscape, Solar One, the Wind Institute, Middlesex College, Rutgers University and NJIT. These intuitions have committed to helping with instructor recruitment and program development, says McDonald of the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools.

While energy sector jobs represent 1.9% of New Jersey employment, U.S. Energy & Employment Report projections indicate a 10% growth in electric power generation jobs in New Jersey and a 4.6% growth in energy efficiency jobs this year. CTE helps students prepare for jobs in clean energy — jobs that afford energy workers in the state a median hourly wage of $29.34 compared to the national median of $19.14.

“A lot of people here came from different industries and had to learn about this industry on the fly because it’s a new space,” said Menadier, the former science teacher who first started in the field a decade ago.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to study this since we were 14 or 15 years old. Now you have this opportunity,” he mused. “Just think about how much more evolved the workforce is going to be.”

Read this story as it originally appeared July 8 in NJ Spotlight.

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