To Build a Green Economy, We Need a Green Workforce

LEED Lab at Catholic University / US Green Building Council

If we want to make the shift to a green economy this century, then we need the workforce with the skills to get us there. If we want to address the crisis of climate change and accelerate our path to future sustainability and resilience, those working in green industries today and in the future continually need new knowledge and skills. At the 2017 Greenbuild in Boston, green building industry education experts discussed employment trends, changes now occurring in higher and vocational education, and what future workplace skills will be needed.

According to Charles Vescoso, American Technical Publishers, in the U.S. renewable energy jobs are now at nearly 800,000 and growing 12 times as fast as other jobs; and there will be 3.3 million jobs in the green building industry by 2018, supporting a $190 billion industry. (In an earlier session, U.S. Green Building Council [USGBC] president Mahesh Ramanujam said the entire “LEED economy,” which includes all employment associated with LEED-certified buildings, now tops 8.4 million jobs and has resulted in $550 billion in investment).

Catholic University architecture professor Patricia Andrasik said universities have been driven to reconsider their missions to meet the market’s demand for employees with practical skills in sustainability and to address climate change, the global ecological crisis, and rising inequality.

In terms of teaching sustainability, Andrasik said there are now even more disciplines involved, with greater interdisciplinary collaboration. Sustainability is now intrinsic to the study of engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, public health, urban planning, real estate, finance, business, policy, and many scientific fields. Because the innovations are coming so fast, Andrasik said curricula are essentially being re-written every year.

Andrasik herself runs the LEED Lab at Catholic University, which offers “applied sustainability education.” Students install and test green building energy meters, read data logs, study dashboards. They are being taught how to “track performance and find mistakes” in operational green buildings, and developing skills in green building management. The course, which was developed in conjunction with the U.S. Green Building Council, is now being used by 25 universities.

Institutions of higher education are also now making even stronger commitments to turn their campuses into showcases of sustainability, using best management practices. Following the birth of the environmental and sustainability movement in the 1970s, universities began staffing up for sustainability in the 1980s and 90s. In the 00s, there was a bump in hiring professionals who can maintain increasingly complex green building systems, but it was really from 2008-2012, as university’s academic priorities evolved to address climate change, where Andrasik saw the greatest jump. “Campus operations are now aligned with academics — efficiency has been driven to a new level.”

Vescoso said outside higher education, in the world of vocational training, there is also a shift towards blending classroom education on sustainability with field training. With these programs, which aim to train building and landscape-related technology installers, technicians, and maintainers, “the focus is now on why we do things a certain way; before it was just how to do something.” For example, the Net Zero Plus Electrical Training Institute in California is a net-zero building that is also a classroom, where students learn about the science and also get hands-on experience with solar panels, micro-grids, and other technologies.

Beyond all the new knowledge and job-related skills, there is also a need for new workplace skills. For Elaine Aye, with Green Building Services, employees in fast-moving green industries need to be “adaptive, independent, collaborative, creative, innovative, and self-directed” in pursuing the triple bottom line: economic, social, and environmental benefits.

Multiple decades into her own career, Aye explained how she has gotten four certifications in the past decade in order to stay up to date. “I have to keep my mind alert and learn to adapt.” And she said more employees are like her and demand training through in person or online tools so they can continually improve their own skills.

The workplace itself is also constantly changing: it’s now “the most diverse ever,” in terms of age, social and cultural differences, and educational backgrounds.

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