Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Green means go

The development of a green jobs sector in Maine continues to be an area of focus of mine, beyond basic skills development, such as WorkReady. Tuesday was illustrative of our workforce board’s multi-pronged approach to workforce development.

I began my day in Waterville, which is slowly becoming one of my favorite Maine communities. I got to participate in the city’s first-ever WorkReady graduation. After graduation, it was time to make the 20 mile drive northeast, to Unity.

[On the road to Unity]

Unity, just over the county line, in Waldo County, was once home to a thriving poultry industry. When hard times hit the industry in Maine during the mid-1960s, Unity lost its major employer. As the old adage goes, when handed lemons, you make lemonade. Well in Unity, when handed the loss of poultry-processing, they decided to start a college. In 1965, Unity College, located on Quaker Hill (on the site of a former chicken farm, nonetheless), was born. It is now the town’s largest employer.

I first met Vice President of Advancement, Rob Constantine, at the Maine Development Foundation’s Annual Meeting, back in September. Rob and I struck up a conversation about workforce, education, and in particular, a green jobs-based economy for Maine. He extended an invite to the college. While I regularly have made my way to Unity each fall for the Common Ground Country Fair, I had never visited the town’s college campus.

As luck would have it, both Rob and I had open slots on our calendars in the afternoon, so I left Waterville, and it was northeast or bust for me.

If other guests are treated as well as I was, and given such a great overview of Unity, then it’s not surprising that the school’s star is on the rise. Rob’s obvious passion for his job, and his skill at presenting the school’s mission and focus were evident during my 2+ hours touring the grounds, and meeting staff and faculty.

Given my interest in seeing Maine develop an energy sector, with an economy oriented towards green jobs, as well as Unity’s orientation towards environmental sciences and sustainable practices, the match was obvious; even more pronounced once Rob began expounding on the various things happening on campus.

It became apparent to me that Unity is a school that could incorporate the necessary training if and when the Maine and the rest of the U.S. adopts an economic development model tied to green energy, and in particular the kind of jobs that sector would produce.

While Unity currently offers only four-year degree programs, I think if a clear career track was identified, with the attendant core skills delineated, the leadership style of the institution appears capable of program offerings that would meet whatever demand becomes necessary to support a green economy.

[Unity House--comfortable living, and carbon-neutral]

One of the highlights of my visit was meeting Cindy Tomashow, the Unity president's wife, and getting a tour of Unity House, the school's zero carbon solar home that the school built in partnership with MIT School of Design, and Bensonwood Homes. You can read about elements of this intriguing house at a blog devoted to it.

While some continue to call green jobs "pie in the sky," nothing could be further from the truth. Already, groups like Opportunity Maine have come forward with plans that can begin training programs immediately. Rob Brown and Clifford Ginn have developed "A New Energy Initiative for Maine," which provides a clear path for Maine. From the executive summary,

Many of the jobs of the New Energy economy will be similar to or the same as those of the fossil fuel economy. For every new energy auditor, solar thermal installer or wind technician, Maine will need dozens more electrical or HVAC technicians, insulation installers, steelworkers, carpenters, plumbers and IT specialists, but with upgraded certifications in a variety of green skills. We must move aggressively to increase our supply of green-skilled workers to address our immediate heating crisis and to meet the needs of a broader, emerging New Energy sector.

Other states, like Oregon and Massachusetts have models in place, so Maine doesn't have to reinvent the wheel in moving forward. Nationally, there is a Clean Energy Jobs Bill, currently awaiting funding, which could come in the form of a stimulus package for infrastructure with the coming of the new administration. Then there are people like Van Jones, who sees an opportunity for clean energy to lift the economic boats of many, rather than just a few.

Maine continues to surprise and amaze me with its innovation, great people, and potential for the future. Every time I think I know the state, some new aspect jumps up and presents itself. Green jobs and an energy sector is something that Mainers have the wherewithal to do, all it takes is a little vision--just like a group of chicken farmers had in Unity, back in 1965.

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