MIDDLEBURY — The message was clear at the Vermont Environmental Consortium’s annual expo at Middlebury College: More green training is necessary for Vermont to have a truly green economy.
“Vermont definitely has the opportunity to keep more jobs and more money in the state,” said Melissa Levy, of St. Albans-based Yellowwood Associates.
At last week’s event, which was attended by business, education and government leaders, Levy presented the results of a survey of the state’s environmental sector that her company had done for the VEC, identifying the specific areas of need for training in the state.
Levy defined the environmental sector as a group of firms, both governmental and non-governmental, that are engaging in activities that reduce the use of fossil fuels and promote sustainability.
A total of 250 green businesses and 100 educational institutions took part in the survey. The businesses employed a total of 19,370, and the majority said they expected to grow in the next five years.
Still, the survey’s results made clear that most of these employers are finding significant gaps in access to specialized employees — in addition to administrative and management skills, many said that access to training in the alternative energy, biofuels, geothermal installation, solar installation and operation fields, among others, would be helpful in their line of work.
Some 31 percent of the firms said that they contracted outside of the state for support services like information technology and accounting — sending a median of $10,000 to $50,000 per company outside of the state.
The event’s keynote speaker, Stuart Rosenfeld of Regional Technical Strategies Inc., had some strategies to offer. The president of the North Carolina-based company spoke of his work connecting community colleges and technical programs with green businesses throughout the Appalachian region.
Rosenfeld described these connections as “clusters.” He said that the formation of close regional networks creates a continuum of education where the educational institutions are not only places for learning, but also centers of community development that tie these clusters together.
“There’s an opportunity to build partnerships with local governments and community organizations,” said Rosenfeld.
In this network, students receive training that is specifically relevant to green jobs, go on to do internships and apprenticeships with local businesses that follow up on their skills, and can draw on that established network for jobs once they have graduated from those programs.
Ultimately, said Rosenfeld, the idea is that green businesses will grow up around a trained labor force, either by the growth of existing businesses or by entrepreneurial ventures launched by the graduates of these programs.
Joan Richmond-Hall, who later gave a talk about how Vermont’s educational institutions have fallen short on environmental education to date, said that that a lack of concentrated green businesses in the state means that programs dedicated to specific aspects of an environmental economy are difficult to create.
“One problem is that we don’t have a cluster,” she said. “In one semester, we could train everyone who could be employed by the wind industry. (Environmental education) ends up being something more general.”
Tom Corbin, the director of business services at Middlebury College and vice chair of the VEC board, said he has seen these training problems arise at the college. He said that the population of loggers in the state is getting older, with few younger people taking their place, which creates problems with supply for the college’s biomass plant. And finding employees for the plant is also difficult.
“You can’t just walk in off the street and run the heating plant,” he said. “You need a certain amount of experience, but also technical skills. There really isn’t a place to get those.”
Rosenfeld said that Vermont is primed for a cluster system, where educational institutions like the Community College of Vermont, Vermont Technical College, and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center are working together to establish the necessary training programs.
In terms of innovative green businesses, he said one needs only to look at the high — and growing — concentration of microbreweries in the state to see that it is not wanting for green business.
“Vermont is so far ahead of the country on CSAs and farmers’ markets — there’s not even a close second,” said Rosenfeld.
But the consensus was clear: The state’s business leaders and educational providers — many of whom attended the expo — need to be working to build up those training networks to ensure that the in-state green economy continues to grow.
In her presentation, Levy included a comment from one survey respondent, who thanked the company for addressing the training issues that the green revolution faces.
“There is no ‘blooming just around the corner’ if there are no qualified boots on the ground to make it happen,” said the anonymous respondent.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]