By: Michael A. Kane
Former Associate Dean, Sciences & Mathematics, Sierra College
Quick Links to Specific Sections:
Overview | Program Inception | Curriculum Development and Delivery | Internal Political Process | Ongoing Funding and Partnerships | Challenges | Successes | Philosophy & Guiding Principles | Lessons Learned | Best Practices | Next Steps
This document is meant to serve as a both a case study of the Sierra College Energy Technology Program creation as well as a guide for developing and implementing an Energy Technology or similar workforce program. The document will primarily focus on the path and procedures to success within the framework of a community college, with emphasis on the California Community College system. That is where my experience is most in-depth and while other states and systems will be different, an attempt is made to make the document as general as possible so that it will have broad applicability.
The development of the Sierra College Program can be traced back to a single event, and that would be the returning of a phone call to Julia Burrows, then the Deputy City Manager and Economic Development Director for the city of Roseville California. The city of Roseville as well as the Sacramento Region were actively working with and recruiting renewable energy companies into the area and were interested in working with local educational institutions to develop training opportunities for the industry. Julia Burrows on behalf of the City of Roseville helped drive the development of a project team that was composed of the city, the North State Builders Association and Sierra College. That group put together a grant proposal for the California Community College Chancellor’s Office, Industry Driven Regional Collaborative (IDRC) grant. We were unsuccessful in our first attempt but successful the second time around and were awarded $468,000 to create the program. Almost immediately thereafter we entered the Great Recession and the state pulled back 25% of the funds of the grant due to the budget crisis. We were fortunate to subsidize some of the losses through SB70 workforce initiative grants that the college had already received.
If there is a theme or lesson on success related to this grant and program it is partnerships. The partnership described above procured the funding for the program. The grant itself, the IDRC, had a requirement as part of the application process that you have committed industry partners willing to provide tangible matching contributions for the funding. These contributions included expert time, advisory board membership, meeting participation, equipment and facilities. One significant match that resulted from this collaboration was a rent-free facility near one of our campus sites that allowed us to offer classes in that area a year earlier than would have otherwise been possible. The facility was made available through our connection with the Nevada County Economic Resource Council. Additional partnerships will be discussed in relation to the curriculum development and hands-on student activities.
There is no reason to start a workforce development program if there is no workforce need. The goal of the program was to provide highly trained and competent workers for an industry, if that industry isn’t hiring there isn’t much point to the program. The Sacramento Region and in particular the City of Roseville were heavily recruiting green energy firms when we initiated the program. Mayor Kevin Johnson1 in Sacramento was espousing an idea he called the Emerald Valley, a reference to bringing green industry to the area. The region was seeing success on this front and in September of 2007 at a Clean Energy Roundtable hosted by the City of Roseville five local solar companies expressed the following concern:
“There is a dearth of solar-industry workers with any experience. All training must be done by the employer at a cost of thousands of dollars to our companies. There is a need for workers with basic knowledge of solar energy, solar thermal and basic construction and safety knowledge.”
The CEOs in this discussion indicated that the training issue was among the top three issues limiting the further growth of their companies. In December of that same year our Sierra College Solar Training Advisory committee came together for the first time and echoed the comments above. So we had solid evidence that locally, companies needed trained workers and needed them immediately.
Research conducted by the Centers of Excellence (2008)2 reported that there were 60+ solar firms in the Sacramento Region not related to manufacturing. Through their survey they indicated that firms expected to hire approximately 250 jobs in the next year. It was this type of information that verified for us that there was a solid industry need for the program. The next question we had to answer was what was the level of student interest in this type of training program?
After some initial marketing and outreach we fairly quickly had several hundred interest cards in our hands. Reviewing the inquiries we’d had it became apparent that there was certainly interest in the program, but also a significant lack of knowledge in what comprised a solar installation training program. So in our first revision of our work plan we did a number of things, we added an FAQ3 section to the Sierra College Website, and set up a series of public orientation sessions. The orientation sessions had a broad focus of informing the public about what the program would be like. There was a very specific focus on the fact that the program was workforce development training for a hands-on construction and electrical related profession. Basically letting folks know that if they weren’t comfortable with power tools, ladders, roofs and electricity this probably wasn’t the program they wanted.
Although the orientation sessions certainly reduced the number of potential students we still believed we had significant interest in the program. This believe would be verified when registration opened for the class. The classes were put into the schedule late, priority registration had passed and this meant any enrolled student at Sierra College could register for the class. The classes went live at 7AM, by 7:07AM, we had filled the 90 seats for our entry level class. So all this lead to the conclusion that we had both solid industry need and student interest; our first and most necessary hurdle was cleared.
Curriculum Development and Delivery
Many times when a college begins a new academic program it’s not truly a new program but the modification of an existing program. The reason for this is that when you start a program from scratch there often isn’t any expertise on campus to drive the curricular process or provide internal political support at the academic senate level. So typically you see transitions like electronics to mechatronics or solar and in many cases you have a construction department that has expertise and capitalizes on the natural connections between construction, energy efficiency and solar.
In our case we were starting for scratch which created its own set of challenges although it also opens up a wide variety of possibilities by not having program development limited to a single faculty member’s area and level of expertise. Additionally sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good or maybe fortune goes to the prepared, either way being lucky is helpful. Our greatest piece of luck was meeting Brian Hurd and a workforce development meeting sponsored by Advanced Transportation Technology & Energy initiative ( ATTEi) in Los Angeles. Brian was presenting on the basics of developing a solar program and the timing coincided quite nicely with our needs. Coincidentally, Brian was only a few months out from moving to our area.
Brian turned out to be invaluable in a number of ways, but was really key to our success in two fundamental ways. Brian understood the necessity for our course curricula to be strictly connected to the objectives for the NABCEP Entry Level Exam. He also was able to bring his technical and teaching expertise to the process of developing our curricula, in addition to helping us understand what materials were critical to have in order to set up our labs.
We developed our course curricula to match the NABCEP Entry Level Learning Objectives.4 In addition to using the NABCEP objectives as a guiding principle we also used the results of an ATTEI DACUM process for solar installation that they completed in November 2007 (Appendix A). Using our program’s Industry Advisory Board, we also undertook a similar process to assess core skills for different job titles related to the solar industry (Appendix B). The crosswalk that we developed between solar related job titles and job related skills was illuminating. The crosswalk allowed us to focus on the core skill sets for our installer program and gave us great information related to overlap as we consider expanding the program.
However, the most valuable part of this exercise by far was the dual directional education that went on during these meetings. The process gave us a deeper understanding of what industry wanted and how they worked, and gave them a much better understanding of the advantages and limitations of an education program. Very often industry partners wanted a particular software system or skill taught in the program. However that particular program or skill were not used industry wide but only by a sub-set or sometimes even by only one company as the software was proprietary to a particular company. Through the crosswalk development process we were able to help our partners understand why we had to design our training to focus on industry-wide applicable core skills. Their companies would still need to do any specialized skill training that was particular to their company or a small sub-set of the industry. This process and discussion was really illuminating for everyone involved. It also branched into getting the local industry representatives to understand that our training program has to be sustainable over time with a consistent student population level. The academic credit arm of community colleges is not nimble and we can’t only operate a program when there is need, then shut it down and start it up again quickly when the need arises again. This is where contract education becomes important but since we have not developed any contract education training with our program I’ll leave that to other sources.
The second area where Brian was incredibly valuable was that he was able to take on a mentorship role for the technical faculty we hired to teach the classes. The majority of these instructors had never taught before and those who had were never formerly trained as instructors. Our first step was to send these instructors to an instructor training class for solar energy.
Once the courses were staffed and the instructors had been through initial training, we set up a bi-weekly mentoring schedule for the faculty. Brian Hurd and I served as the mentors to the faculty. Brian provided technical expertise and teaching experience in the field, I provided both teaching experience as well as specific information related to the role of an instructor at the college. I believe that this process greatly improved the level of instruction students would have otherwise received, as well as allowing us the opportunity to identify and correct issues early on. These meetings also provided a feedback mechanism for what was, and was not working in the classroom and a pathway to how the students felt about the program.
One final benefit of this process is that we did identify some issues with a particular instructor that were serious in nature. This eventually led to us letting this instructor go, however the constant feedback also allowed us to find out about the issues during the semester so that we were able to take steps to ensure the students got an appropriate experience and that the learning objectives of the course were met.
We were very specific in developing the content and even timing of the course offerings. In the initial stages of program development we visited Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY. They have what may be the premier solar installation program in the country. Upon visiting we really liked the way they set the program up. Students have to complete their electrician training program with a set grade point average in order to apply to the solar installation program. We don’t have an electrical training program so that was not an option, but we felt that the optimal way to run the program would have been to establish two pre-requisites for the program, a course in electrical and also a course in construction basics. Within those courses students would have gotten basic tool and safety training in addition to electrical and construction basics. Unfortunately our construction program didn’t have the specific type of courses we needed nor the capacity or desire to institute them. For this reason we split the basic NABCEP Entry Level training into a two course sequence to allow for the inclusion of safety, tool usage, electrical and constructions basics. Later as the program developed we have also integrated OSHA 10 hour safety training into the program so that students can earn their OSHA 10 hour safety certification card.
We offer the solar training courses starting at 4:30PM and run them as 4 unit lecture/lab courses. This allows for 6 hours of instruction (3 lecture/3 lab) each week, a total of 108 hours of instruction per semester. The choice of 4:30PM was a conscious decision related to the two pools of students we expected to have in the program. The first population being working people who may have other jobs while re-training for a new career. We have had a large number of students who were training for a new career or to enhance their current skills come through the program including painters, carpet layers, construction laborers and contractors. The second population we considered was our typical 18-25 year old student population. The choice of the time allowed the working folks to come after work and for the younger full-time students to take these classes at a time that doesn’t typically conflict with the most popular times for general education course offerings. Given this is a solar program we also needed to make sure the timing left us with enough sunlight to do lab exercises. The 4:30 schedule allows for some good light in the earlier parts of the fall semester and later weeks in the spring semester. As such, we offer our initial class in the fall and intermediate class in the spring. We also use 1 Saturday for the beginning class and 3 Saturday work days for the intermediate class. This allows for larger lab project work, in particular it allows the intermediate class to do a small ground array set up and take down in one day.
In addition to the beginning and intermediate courses we also offer an advanced solar course. The first two courses focus on the residential, grid-tie systems and the basics of the NABCEP Entry Level Exam. The advanced course looks at off-grid systems as well with a focus on system design and commercial systems. The format for the advanced course is a bit different, it is still a 4 unit lecture/lab course, however the lab work is done in 8 Saturdays. For the lab portion of the course the class operates as a project team responsible for the design and installation of a commercial solar array. Each semester the students have been typically installing an eight thousand watt, three-phase commercial system on campus. This gives these students excellent additional hands on experience and one full array install under their belt prior to leaving the program.
For all three courses there is a hands on experience focus in the lab portion of the course that builds through working with individual panels, to a small grid-tie ground array installation and finally to a permanent commercial array installation. Not surprisingly this has been the aspect of the course that the students have reacted to most positively. As of Fall 2015 we will be moving the advanced course installation off campus to work with Energy 2001, which is a company that generates electricity by burning recaptured methane at the local landfill. This new partnership will provide the program with additional financial support as well as expose the students to more of a utility scale power generation operation as well as other forms of energy production.
Internal Political Process
Every institution has their own special issues in this regard. For our program it arose in the form of a lack of internal support from the non-workforce related faculty on our campus. Our Career Technical Education committee and the faculty from those programs were incredibly supportive. I would like to point out that we did, in my opinion, everything we could have done to avoid these issues. We started by going to the academic senate to present to them the idea for the grant submission and get their support, which we received. The grant itself was circulated through all of our normal vetting and approval processes. There were no issues, questions or problems brought to us at any point in the grant process, or the initial stages of developing the program. We initially brought the program to our Construction Department as an add-on, and although they were involved in all of the scoping and initial project meetings they declined to have the program in their department. So we took the program to a new program that had been created the year before and housed the Energy Technology Program in the Environmental Studies & Sustainability (ESS) Department.
Our first inkling of any underlying issues arose when the ESS Department went through its first Program Review cycle that year. In the review process we were “unofficially” told that the program was in the wrong department it should be in construction or a stand-alone program. Not noting of course that the program had no full-time faculty or instructional assistant support. Another concern came to light shortly thereafter in Academic Senate discussions that other programs were concerned initiating a new program was stealing resources from other programs. Not noting that in fact at that time the program was fully grant funded. This argument would continue to pop up for years even though the district general fund was only supporting the program to the tune of a $250 annual supply budget.
The really huge hurdle our program faced was getting staffing resources in the form of a full-time faculty member and instructional assistant. The process for determining faculty hires on our campus has a two part ranking system with both the Deans Council and Academic Senates doing separate rankings and then coming together for a joint final ranking that is advanced to the president for final decision. Consistently for three years the Deans Council would highly rank the position and the Academic Senate would rank the position as one of the lowest ranked positions. Therefore the joint ranking was always far below the level needed for a hire.
The reasoning on the part of the Academic Senate for the low ranking came back to the same tired issues from the first program review discussions. The program should be in another department, the program is not expanding (chicken and egg problem here), and my favorite, it didn’t get a good ranking in program review. Of course many of the same people in this discussion assigned the program review ranking. What the hiring process revealed was that although there was support at the mid-management level (deans) there was not enough support within the Academic Senate or at the executive level to make the program successful in the hiring prioritization process.
A lot of programs hit a hurdle like this one getting caught up in internal campus politics. This is where change agent/management skills come in to play and are vitally important. As an appendix to this piece (Appendix C) we’re including an article on change management to go into more depth on what these skills are and how they can be effectively used. One of the most important core concepts for making successful change is knowing your institution. In this particular case it did not seem there was a way to get past this situation by educating the folks involved, their opposition was either for personal or philosophical reasons. So we needed a new path and an opportunity did present itself in the form of our Construction Department. As you may remember, we initially had hoped to put the program in that department but the faculty balked at the idea. The construction program had been in a severe enrollment decline related both the program format and the impact the Great Recession had on the construction industry. Two changes were on the horizon for us, first, the faculty who had balked were now retired and in fact the program had no full-time faculty. Second, the construction industry was rebounding and there was an obvious need for improving the program.
The dean supervising the construction program and I decided to propose to merge the two programs and chase a full-time hire to oversee the merged programs. We also put on the table that without a full-time hire, both programs would need to be discontinued. It seems the combination of the merge and the threat were enough to bring both the Academic Senate and Executive Team around to our point of view and I’m happy to say for the Fall 2014 semester we have hired a full-time instructor for our new Construction & Energy Technology Department. Building allies is another core concept in change management and without this partnership between two division deans both programs would likely have been discontinued.
Ongoing Funding & Partnerships
If I was asked for one word that sums up the success of our program it would have to be partnerships. This was a mantra from the very beginning of the program development process. The initial program idea and grant writing team was a partnership between Sierra College, the City of Roseville, and the North State Builders Industry Association. Our initial source of funding was an Industry Driven Regional Collaborative (IDRC) grant that required us to bring in industry partners at the grant writing stage. These partners were how the match for the grant was made, they helped us through giving of expertise, time, materials up to and including a facility that we used for the first year for our Nevada County sections. The partnership support extended in similar ways through our advisory board once the program was initiated. As mentioned earlier, the industry advisors were key in identifying what the necessary core skills were for our students to be successful in getting jobs in the industry. Our industry partners have continued to support us in a number of ways from tours, to guest speakers, equipment and even hiring many of our graduates.
When twenty-five percent of our grant funding was pulled back it was our partnership with our grants office that allowed us to access some SB70 grant funds to supplement some of our lost resources. Throughout the life of the program our partnership with our Career Technical Education committee has allowed us to access Perkins’ grant funds to pay for much of the equipment needed for our advanced student projects.
The area where are partnerships have been extremely beneficial has been around our advanced student projects. For our first project the IDRC grant funded all of the materials for the project; however those funds were fully expended shortly after that project was completed. Recognizing the funding issues we would inevitably hit, we developed a partnership with our maintenance and operations division around the student projects. The agreement was that maintenance and operations would provide infrastructure support as well as working with us on the grid connection. The students would do the full installation of the system. In addition, because the college would be benefitting from the project, the maintenance and operations division agreed to partially support the project through our campus sustainability fund. This fund consists of money the college receives back from any energy efficiency or renewable energy rebates we receive.
Our first three student project installations were done under this funding and operational model with support from our CTE and maintenance and operations funds. However it was our fourth installation where the true collaborative nature of campus partnerships really came together. In our third year we were approached by our student government who wanted to fund the installation of an array to offset the energy used by the pond fountain and waterfall features they had previously paid to have installed near the student center. The project was designed to be at roughly the same eight thousand watt level but needed some significant infrastructure work. In order to complete the infrastructure work we turned to our welding department and luckily were able to have the welding students complete the steel structure we needed to mount the panels. This project was a partnership of student government, welding and energy technology students with financial support from the student government, CTE and maintenance and operations. This project was truly the definition of a collaborative project which benefitted student education and training as well as the college. Our next campus project for the Fall 2014 Semester will be a second leg to this project and will again involve both the welding and energy technology students.
For the Fall 2015 Semester we will be partnering with a private company, Energy 2001, to do a project at their site. As mentioned previously this project is really exciting as it will significantly expand what our students will be exposed to in the energy field. Additionally, it is exciting to both be involved in a public/private partnership that will allow a higher level of visibility of student work within the community. Significantly, since Energy 2001 will be funding the installations we will have a guaranteed three year funding stream for our projects. This will alleviate our having to do a series of annual requests to get our projects funded.
This section alone could probably be its own report; of course that’s how it is with any new program. Since I’ve covered most of these earlier in the report I will be brief. Our first challenge was managing community expectations; we did this by putting out an information campaign with our most effective work coming from the information on the college website and the public program orientation sessions that we ran. This really leads to an overall challenge and necessity when starting any program and that is the need for clear communication. It was imperative to keep people both on campus and external to the program in the loop. We did a number of things to accomplish this, we went to campus governing bodies and did presentations, and we had regular advisory board meetings and could have done a better job of also providing them with regular updates between meetings. Our internal team met regularly with the faculty teaching the classes and the mentoring group met regularly with the faculty as well.
As the program progressed we did a lot of internal and external marketing. We utilized the college’s public relations and marketing folks for much of the external marketing and internally we used a periodic newsletter. Unfortunately we never got to a regular cycle with the newsletter and that is something we could have done better. Finally, we made a point of doing announcements and report outs in appropriate campus meetings and committees including Deans Council, Management Team Meeting, and at our Career Technical Education Committee monthly meetings. Another thing that would have been smart was to send that same internal newsletter to our industry advisory board members.
The most precious resource on most college campuses is facility space. This was a huge issue for us originally. At our Grass Valley Campus Center we were in good shape, we had a donated facility for a year and were in line to receive a new classroom facility at the campus center. It was a different story on the main campus as there was no space available. Initially we had hoped for a donation of a building from some of our construction industry partners but that fell through. Our second hope was a space in the City of Roseville’s corporation yard. The City of Roseville space may have worked but was far from an ideal space. Finally, we located space at our Roseville Gateway Center which is only six miles from the main campus. We were able to actually secure two adjoining, dedicated classroom spaces and knock a hole in the wall to create a suitable lecture/lab space. This involved significant assistance and negotiation with both our Facilities and Liberal Arts Divisions. As the program moves forward and merges with our construction program we’ve been able to find space in the construction area for the energy technology program.
Appropriate equipment is of course an absolute necessity to any workforce development program. Additionally whenever possible, the equipment needs to mirror what is being used in industry so that students have experience with the same equipment they’ll be using on the job site. This was in fact one of the easier challenges to overcome for us. First, the program was grant funded and we’d done a decent job of anticipating equipment costs. Secondly our consultant, Brian Hurd, was able to advise us as to what to buy and was even helpful by providing education friendly vendor contacts; again, we were incredibly lucky to have landed him as a consultant.
Staffing was a significant challenge for a number of reasons. It was hard to find folks in a busy industry that had the time, teaching talent, or inclination to become instructors. The way we were able to come up with successful candidates was primarily through industry networking. We also put out newspaper and Craigslist advertisements but the majority of candidates came to us from word of mouth recommendations by our industry contacts. We did a very thorough interview process which included a knowledge exam created by our consultant, verbal interview questions and a teaching demonstration. This process was highly illuminating; we had a wide range of scores on the knowledge exam, and some really terrible teaching demonstrations. Most of the teaching demonstrations were somewhat lacking which led to the next challenge, ensuring quality teaching.
To ensure quality teaching, we developed initially a weekly and later a bi-weekly mentoring program for the new faculty. The sessions were led by a dean and our consultant. Instructors were first sent to an 8 hour solar instructor training course. Then as the semester approached we started the mentoring sessions. The sessions worked on developing lesson plans, assisting and providing curricular materials, discussions of teaching tips and strategies, as well as long discussions of the administrative duties required of faculty each semester and campus rules. All of the instructors had solid technical knowledge but needed guidance with issues of classroom management, education system rules, planning and how to properly assess learning. We believe the mentoring process is a major reason for the success we’ve had with the program.
Our campus internal politics were a huge challenge for us and I wrote about it in great detail earlier in the report. The responses to all of the challenges discussed in this report have a bearing on your internal politics. As previously noted a paper on change agent skills is also included with this document. The single most important factor is that you must know and understand the machinations of your internal campus politics. This includes understanding who and what are obstacles to your success, the type of obstacles that exist and how to navigate them in order to move forward. Finally it is important to form partnership (creating allies) that can assist you and/or apply pressure to the obstacles in your path.
One challenge that was truly unexpected for us was the loss of Placer County’s residential Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program called M-Power. The loss of these programs due to changes in federal guidelines regarding financing put a serious crimp into the residential solar market, followed quickly by the Great Recession many local hiring estimates were reassessed lower. There was still a thriving market and workforce need but the job market would certainly be tighter for our students as a result of this change. The change also meant that with fewer jobs available our original pipeline needed to be reduced in size. Initially we were teaching three sections of our entry-level solar installation class (ESS 30). This meant our initial starting population was between 60 and 72 students, we then followed with two sections of intermediate (ESS 32) with 40 – 48 students total, and finally our advanced class (ESS 34) with 20 -24 students. Given the issues with losing the PACE program and the Great Recession we reduced this to 2 sections of ESS 30n (48 max), and 1 each for ESS 32 (24 max) and 34 (16 max).
This addressed another challenge which was successfully directing a 20 -24 person work crew in the advanced class when they were on-site for projects. We saw some natural attrition into ESS 34 from reducing the size of the pipeline, however we consciously decided to reduce the class size a max of 16 students and typically have 12 -16 students in the class. This change has made for a better and safer project site experience for the students.
Once the program got started we were disconcerted to find out that the students were not getting jobs. This didn’t make sense as we knew local industry folks were hiring, in talking to students what we discovered was that the students were deficient in job hunting skills. In response we developed a one class session on career skills that included resume development, job searching skills and tips. The unit over time has been further fleshed out and depending on the structure also includes some material on career exploration.
Sometimes success brings on its own challenges, we ran into a situation where students were “jobbing out” prior to completing the intermediate course and sitting for the NABCEP Entry-Level Exam. This issue was further exacerbated by a company that was telling students once hired that it was in their best interest to quit and just work for the company. Of course the reality was that this was in the best interest of the company. Non-NABCEP certified installers could be paid less and without the certification were less likely to get promoted or be able to move on to other jobs. Happily, after explaining this to the company the issue has resolved itself. This issue brings up an important point; it needs to be a focus of the program, and made clear to students from day one, that they are training for a career, not just to get a job.
The program has been a success so far but is also very much a work in progress. The elements of the original vision that are in place, the solar installation classes have been highly successful. They have done exactly what we needed them to do which is to be high caliber, quality, and in-depth training for solar installers that leads them to a career in renewable energy. The program has earned a great deal of respect in the local industry and won both local and regional awards. Even more importantly there has been great student success as a result of the program. We have students working in large international solar companies in prominent positions, students have moved up into leadership positions in local companies and at least two solar related businesses have been created by former students. The feedback we receive from students out in the workforce has been nothing but positive about their experience in the program.
The continued existence of the program in itself is a success. The program started right at the beginning of the Great Recession, the largest economic downturn in 70 years. Our grant was immediately cut and no because of the budget crisis was an easy answer to any resource requests. Our program has existed for over five years on an annual supply budget of $250 per year, with no full-time faculty or instructional assistant working with the program. For the program to be not just operating but thriving under those conditions is a credit to all of those around the program and those who supported it.
One of the things we are most proud of in the program is our student’s success rate on the NABCEP Entry-level Exam. Overall our pass rate is 89%, with a 100% pass rate for women who have taken the exam. Given the national average pass rate of somewhere between 50 and 60%, we likely have one of, if not the highest, pass rate in the nation. This success is due to several factors, first, 216 hours of both hands-on and book work prior to taking the exam; utilizing the NABCEP learning objectives as a foundation for our curriculum; and testing students from the beginning of the first semester with exams that reflect what students will see on the actual NABCEP exam. The NABCEP Entry-level certification is a credential that less than 20% of all solar installers hold and as such provides a level of confidence for employers hiring our students.
Relatively early in the program we developed a partnership with our facilities division to do campus projects for our advanced solar class. This partnership has been wonderful; it has helped the program financially and allowed students and staff to develop a sense of pride over their work contributions to campus. Additionally this partnership has generated positive press for the college while also contributing to lowering our GHG emissions impacts and saving us money. This contribution has not been insignificant, to date; the college’s general fund has contributed about $20,000 towards systems while gaining installed systems valued at approximately $200,000.
The array installation project model has been very successful as well; it has provided students with commercial level, 3-phase installation practice. In addition to the actual installation work the students also get to experience a project from design through to installation. They also gain experience by being exposed to all of the difficulties that occur in project management including material delivery delays, scheduling problems and large doses of bureaucracy.
We have had some highly successful industry partnerships connected with our program. Although we could have done a better job soliciting equipment donations we did receive support in many ways. Initially we had a facility donated to us rent free that we were able to use for two years. Where industry really has stepped up has been in helping with the actual classes. We have had a large number of folks who have been guest presenters, offered expertise on projects, done facility tours and have offered employment opportunities to our students.
The program has received some recognition locally and regionally for the work it has done. The program was awarded the Placer County Economic Development Board’s Public Sector Award in 2009. In 2010 the program along with the department it was housed in, Environmental Studies & Sustainability, was awarded the Sierra Business Council’s Vision Award.
Something that is currently working out and definitely can be considered a success is our upcoming partnership with Energy 2001. This will be a public/private partnership where our advanced class will do commercial level installations at the Energy 2001 site. Energy 2001 is a methane recovery power generating facility and they will be fully funding the student projects as well as offering several internships to students in the program. We are currently in the process of finalizing a three-year Memorandum of Understanding that will fully fund our advanced class projects for that period of time. This partnership will expose our students to a broader range of energy technology and significantly raise the profile of the program in our local community.
We have recently been informed that our AS in Energy Technology has been approved through the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. This now means that students have the opportunity to earn 3 certificates and/or an AS Degree in our program.
Finally the most important success we have had is to merge the program with our construction department so that we were able to gain both a full-time instructor and full-time instructional assistant support for the program. The newly merged Construction & Energy Technology Program will also facilitate the move of the program’s classroom to our main campus and the eventual expansion into energy efficiency, solar sales and solar thermal.
Philosophy and Guiding Principles
When we started the process of developing the Energy Technology Program at Sierra College in 2008 we took a very specific philosophic approach to program creation. Many people in and around the program wanted us to immediately jump into what I call the three primary legs of an energy program, solar electric, energy efficiency and solar thermal. To be quite frank I pushed for a much more conservative approach and we focused solely on solar electric in the form of photovoltaic installation training. The reason we chose this path was so that the program would have a solid foundation that would allow it to withstand the ups and downs that occur in any endeavor. Additionally, with the economy entering the Great Recession I was concerned about the viability of a new program in a time of dwindling resources. My primary concerns centered on the experience of the renewable energy sector in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The late 70’s saw an expansion in renewable energy driven by events such as the Arab oil embargo. When prices are rising and people have to gas their cars every other day, they suddenly want options other than fossil fuels for energy. Additionally, the environmental movement was growing in strength and so renewable energy benefitted from both of these realities.
Unfortunately for renewables, 1980 brought a significant change in America, lowering interest rates, the end of the oil embargo, the election of Ronald Reagan and increased optimism for the economy meant that attitudes in the United States were shifting. In fact the solar thermal panels President Carter had installed on the White House grounds were immediately removed by Ronald Reagan. The comment I often make in talking about this change is that in 1980 everyone decided to cut their hair, go to Wall Street and try and get rich. With this change the renewable energy industry lagged, only remaining active in certain small spots in the United States, places like Nevada County in California.
Fast forward to 2008 and we were once again in an era where oil and gas prices were skyrocketing, and environmental awareness, thanks in part to Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, was on the rise. It was in this environment of rising enthusiasm, high gas prices and predictions that we finally hit peak oil that we started our program. In that environment people thought that the rise of renewable energy sector and therefore renewable energy was an unstoppable wave. However, given the experiences of the 1970’s and not wanting to be people who failed to remember history, (peak oil predictions have been made many times in history), we decided to create a deep foundation in one leg, solar electric, rather than creating shallow foundations across all three.
What is important to remember however, is that a single leg of energy program as a permanent stand-alone feature is a mistake and was never our plan. Our plan was to solidly establish the first leg, while actively building toward adding energy efficiency next and finally solar thermal training. The overall goal of the program was to train students to not just be technicians, but well-rounded renewable energy professionals with both theoretical knowledge and hands on skills. We believe this mirrors the trend in the energy sector where firms that only did solar initially have come to realize that providing energy audit and retrofit services in conjunction with the capability of solar installation is a much wiser business model that provides customers with better and more satisfying experience. It is also the model that the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs were taking before changes in federal financing derailed the ability for municipalities to effectively implement residential PACE programs.
One of the earlier lessons we learned was that you can’t forget to focus on non-technical employability skills. We were surprised to learn how little our students actually knew about the process of locating and obtaining a job. Especially shocking given that our students were older than the typical 18 -25 year old student population.
It was something we believed when we started out, but was later verified by the NABCEP exam success, that the curriculum really needs to be closely aligned to industry related objectives. In education terminology, student learning outcomes need to mirror industry core skill sets for employment. Because these skill sets are not often defined the next best thing is to match the learning outcomes to industry certification standard outcomes, if the industry has a recognized cortication. In the case of the solar industry NABCEP is certainly that.
When we went through our job skill crosswalk exercise with our industry advisory board we learned that industry often has widely different expectations for training outcomes for education programs. Many companies wanted us to train students in techniques, tools, software etc… that were limited and sometime proprietary to their company. The crosswalk process turned out to not only be important to setting the program curriculum but also to educating industry as to what was possible in a training program. Getting industry to understand that we need to focus the program on a set of core skills that were widely applicable between companies became key. Industry representatives then can have clear expectations about what skills students will have when completing the program, while understanding what type of on the job training they will need to offer.
We saw the need for extensive safety training from the outset of the program. However, it became apparent after a couple of years that there would be a significant benefit to students if we formalized the training in such a way as to meet the OSHA 10 hour safety training requirement. This of course meant sending instructors to training so they could certify the training but we believe has been well worth the expense.
The need and benefit of partnerships cannot be stressed enough. All of the program success can be linked back in some fashion to the extensive partnerships that we have and continue to establish for the program.
Any program should focus on training professionals for a career not just technicians, the purpose of education is to improve student’s lives and help them create a pathway to long-term success. Without that focus we run the risk of designing programs that leave students in a dead end that is only slightly better than their current circumstance.
Programs that create stackable certificates with multiple points of entry and exit create the most options for students and help programs maintain stable enrollments. We are just getting to this point in our program. Initially with a single focus on solar installation this wouldn’t have made sense. However in the new Construction and Energy Technology program we have built a set of certificates that meet this criteria (Appendix D).
We need to have a somewhat business and entrepreneurial spirit when we develop programs as opposed to our typical educational mindset. We need to become comfortable with asking partners for help. The funny thing is when you ask, the answer is very often yes.
To help ensure long-term programmatic success we recommend when starting a program that you stay with a narrow focus but provide a lot of depth. It was this characteristic of our program that enabled us to sustain our program through the Great Recession, when other programs didn’t survive.
In any workforce development program it probably goes without saying, but the heavier the industry participation at the point of development the better. The key here is the timing, bringing in industry early in the process helps you craft a program that truly meets industry needs. It also allows you to appropriately set industry expectations as to what you can deliver in terms of training and create an open dialogue with your industry partners.
Particular at the community college level, it is imperative that you fully engage your Career Technical Education (CTE) structure at the college. This structure takes differing forms from a single all powerful chair or grant administrator to highly organized campus-wide committees. Regardless of the structure you have to be fully engaged as Perkins Federal Grant Fund money is a wonderful source of resources. Additionally, that structure will be your information access point to other training and resource opportunities.
At most colleges someone wears the hat of college grant administrator, make friends with this person. This may be an actual position, however it may also be an unofficial designation, one of the dreaded other duties as assigned. Regardless of the title, someone is the person who coordinates and often writes the majority of grants at the college. Beyond the obvious benefit of assisting your own grant writing efforts, this person also is aware of other grants on campus that may be of assistance to your program. It was exactly this scenario that saved us when the state pulled back 25% of our grant funding due to the state budget crisis. Knowing the grants person and having their support got us connected to another source of funding that helped us procure additional funding to make up a considerable piece of the deficit.
Make friends with your facility folks regardless of whether you’re starting a program or not. Facility folks are some of the most underutilized resources on campus. Particularly given that facility space is the rarest commodity on most campuses, having a line to the people who manage those resources is crucial. Additionally, many times their staff doesn’t feel connected to the educational side of the house and will often jump at the opportunity to help your program if they can feel that connection. Our partnership with our facilities folks has yielded a wide range of benefits and resources as well as a source of knowledge and expertise.
Remember to market your program’s success both internally and externally. I have often found that people do a good job at external marketing but forget to let the rest of campus know about the great things they are doing. Internal marketing helps raise awareness, create a positive impression of the program and help you gain support in your internal political battles. The real secret is that often, if you do a really good job marketing internally, it will reduce the number of internal political issues that you will face.
Your marketing efforts lead into another best practice which is to get recognized. Chasing awards and recognition seems a little antithetical to what we normally do. However, the simple fact is that people often look no further into something than a tag line level. So once you can honestly state you have an award winning program, many people will automatically assume you have a high quality program whether they know anything about the program or not. Think about it this way, you can take a cruise with an award winning cruise line or another one. Our natural inclination is to go with the award winning cruise line. It’s important for long-term success that the awards and recognition validate quality work you’re doing, but getting that recognition is another form of marketing that can help ensure program sustainability. This is particularly true if the college president gets to have his/her picture taken while accepting the award.
Utilizing change agent/management skills is critical to success. It is often the application of these skills that determines how smoothly you navigate the often treacherous waters of politics and bureaucracy at your institution or in your system. If you never have, do some reading or get some training to help you develop your change agent/management skills.
Get professional help! There will be times in the project development and management process where you will become convinced that what I meant by this was that you should get personal mental health counseling for even attempting this process. Although I know that feeling well, this is not what I mean. When developing a new program you need a technical expert who has been down this road before and preferably with a similar type of program. Having a faculty member with some experience in the area is great, but often doesn’t provide the broader perspective needed for the program to realize its full potential.
Utilize industry certifications wherever possible so that industry has a clear understanding of the skills and experience your students possess when they enter the workforce. Unfortunately, this is often difficult as we are often creating programs in emerging fields and those fields may not have come to consensus regarding a single industry wide recognized certification. In those cases it’s important not to necessarily affiliate with a single certification organization but to evaluate the core skills and competencies required across the leading certifications. Then, along with your industry advisors target your program to that core set of skills and competencies. Train career professionals, not just technicians.
Providing instructional training and mentorship for technical faculty coming from industry is very beneficial. Faculty you hire from the technical field have technical knowledge, however they very often have little or no teaching experience and less training. While technical expertise is essential, teaching skills are equally important as we are not asking faculty to just demonstrate their expertise but teach others how to do it.
Get lucky! Probably not a best practice per se as luck is hard to manufacture. However, you need to be well prepared and organized so that you can capitalize on good fortune and opportunities should they present themselves.
Our program is moving into a new phase as it merges into the Construction and Energy Technology Program. The former construction program overlaps with energy technology in respect to energy efficiency. The two new energy efficiency courses we are developing utilize skills, knowledge and training from both disciplines and will serve as a centerpiece of the new program. Additionally we will work more to infuse energy concepts into the construction courses and beef up the construction skills developed in the energy courses.
We had planned all along to expand our energy offerings to include a solar sales course as well as eventually adding solar thermal training to the program. To have a fully developed renewable energy program you need to have all three core legs within the program, solar electric, solar thermal and energy efficiency.
Our long-term dream that we have kicked around for some time and discussed with industry partners, in particular the North State Builders Industry Foundation, is for the development of a regional training center. The vision is to develop a center that could support and act as a resource to local community college and high school trades programs as well as being a place for continuing education classes for working professionals. Finally, a public education component would provide information to the public as well as act as a marketing tool for industry and local training programs.
Energy Technology Project Footnotes
- Greenwise Sacramento, Regional Action Plan http://uptownstudios.net/_pdf/Greenwise-Sacramento-Regional-Action-Plan.pdf
- Centers of Excellence – Greater Sacramento, Solar Industry & Workforce Study Key Findings, 2008 http://coeccc.net/solar/documents/GSac_KeyFindings.pdf
- Sierra College website section for the Energy Technology Program http://www.sierracollege.edu/academics/divisions/science-math/energy.php (If link doesn’t work got to the Business Division, Construction & Energy Technology Program site as the programs were merging as of August, 2014)
- NABCEP Entry Level Learning Objectives – http://www.nabcep.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/NABCEP-PV-Learning-Objectives-2-9-12.pdf