Aiming higher and greener

Training a workforce for the future economy

Phil Cypret stopped teaching classes in electric-vehicle technology when a job market failed to materialize.

Phil Cypret stopped teaching classes in electric-vehicle technology when a job market failed to materialize.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

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There was a time when the future looked bright for electric vehicles. At that point, Phil Cypret was teaching a certificate program in electric-vehicle technology at Sacramento City College in which students learned how to convert, build and repair electric and fuel-cell motors and batteries.

The program started after the California Air Resources Board’s Zero Emission Vehicle Program mandated that 10 percent of cars on the road be powered by electric or fuel-cell technology. Cypret immediately recognized the opportunity for a new area of vocational training.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh my gosh, no one is trained to do this,’” he said. “We jumped into it with both feet, put in a lot of resources and came up with a degree program, thinking this was the wave of the future.”

Unfortunately, after four years, the mandate was modified to focus on car-sharing and alternative fuels, and electric vehicles were eschewed for their more practical cousin, the hybrid. SCC stopped offering the EVT program in spring of 2005.

The situation, Cypret said, can be summed up with another anecdote from the glory days when electric vehicles seemed poised to conquer Earth. He was at a conference with 1,200 industry leaders when he posed a simple question to his peers: How many of you own an electric vehicle? Not a single hand went up.

“If there was actually a market, I would start [the EVT program] up again next semester,” Cypret said, but he’s not holding his breath. Instead, SCC is looking into other green technologies with more promising job prospects for its students. This summer, the school plans to roll out a program in biodiesel engine conversion, with courses in wind generation and photoelectric technology slated for the fall.

While those courses will likely fill up, as Cypret has learned, that may be no indication of the program’s success at training a green workforce. His class on converting internal-combustion engine vehicles to electric always had a long waiting list, but the students weren’t budding electric-vehicle engineers; they were father-son teams and weekend tinkerers seeking a quick how-to for their at-home car conversion projects.

“People just wanted to do it for fun,” Cypret said. “We’re not supposed to be a hobby shop.”

So SCC shut the program down. To have vocational training in a field without a viable job market seemed plainly unethical, Cypret said, given that much of the school’s funding comes from private industry paying to train future employees. In the end, a few graduates landed jobs at a fuel-cell development center in West Sacramento, but the consensus from manufacturers: There simply was not a demand for electric vehicles.

In other sectors of the economy, green education has found greater success. UC Davis Extension has offered a green-building and sustainable-design certificate program for the last two years, and classes have been filled to capacity with architects, designers, planners and attorneys trying to beef up their credentials in a growing industry that has been issuing LEED credits faster than people can remember what the acronym stands for.

SMUD has offered workshops at its Energy and Technology Center for more than 10 years, helping professional organizations stay on top of energy efficiency standards and training technicians to install solar, said SMUD lighting specialist Connie Samla. In a market that changes daily, continuing education is important for industry workers who want to become more marketable, Samla said.

Yet, there’s a difference between providing additional training for those already in the industry and creating new jobs for a nascent, and supposedly burgeoning, green economy. With the kind of drastic changes that environmentalists—and, increasingly, the public at large—call for, where are the people who will build our green future?

Dudley Burton, chair of the environmental studies department at CSUS, said the problem is a risk-averse culture and a federal administration that’s only willing to fund big corporations while promising alternative technologies sit in college laboratories and on garage workbenches.

“What we need to be doing is letting a thousand flowers bloom and pick the best ones,” he said. “But you can’t do that until you let them bloom. You have to put some money up for the garage guys to do their thing.”