Los Rios’ ‘Green Force:’ The green grads

Community-college students sign up in droves to learn eco-friendly skills—and also find jobs

Martin Peck (foreground) and Todd Stretars make adjustments to a diesel engine. Both students were enrolled in American River College's clean-diesel technology program.

Martin Peck (foreground) and Todd Stretars make adjustments to a diesel engine. Both students were enrolled in American River College's clean-diesel technology program.

Photo Courtesy of American River College

Jobs that pay decent, living wages can be few and far between, but some measure of help is here for eco-conscious students. It comes in the form of training for the green economy at all Los Rios Community College campuses, all four of which boast slices of the green-training pie.

American River College focuses on solar and clean-diesel technology; Cosumnes River College on home-energy design and review; Folsom Lake College on water management; and Sacramento City College on building and water efficiency. ARC is the biggest of the district quartet, with more than 38,000 students enrolled this fall.

“Many youth are environmentally conscious and want to have careers that incorporate green strategies,” said Cris McCullough, ARC associate vice president for workforce development.

The Los Rios strategy for energy and utility training took off as a regional initiative in 2007. Its green curriculum attempts to conform to what the labor market needs now, McCullough explained, which means capping enrollment or limiting some training classes to 50 students when 250 want to sign up.

For instance, over-enrolling students in solar-training classes, despite the strong interest in such an eco-friendly skill, is not what Los Rios does. Rather, it balances the supply of trained students with employers’ demand.

McCullough sees green curriculum expanding into fields such as accounting, real estate and engineering, where private firms and public agencies are increasingly focusing on a concern for ecology and energy.

So, where do Los Rios green grads find jobs? And how much to they make?

According to McCullough, some ARC grads in the clean-diesel auto technology program have landed out-of-state employment with annual pay of up to $100,000, though the average starting salary for this occupation is $18 to $20 per hour. There were 512 ARC students enrolled in clean-diesel training in the 2010-11 academic year, as opposed to 369 students in 2009-10, said Stephen Peithman, a school spokesman.

In the solar industry, average hourly pay for entry-level workers is $12 to $15 an hour, according to McCullough. Currently, though, the solar industry is feeling the effects of plummeting home prices and plunging home equity.

As a result of this double-barreled process, solar-training enrollment has dipped to 180 students in the 2010-11 year, from 265 students a year earlier, Peithman said. He cited weakness in the economy as the main cause for employers’ fragile demand for employees trained to install and service solar panels.

But commercial and industrial developments are less dependent on home equity to bankroll solar upgrades, and also have tax advantages for certain green technologies, which helps better manage utility costs, according to McCullough.

Certainly, using energy from the sun is not just a way to reduce the carbonizing of the environment: It helps save money. “Solar is a strategy that works well in the Sacramento region with its ample sunshine, a long-term energy payback for folks who don’t want to rely on petroleum products,” she said.

Speaking of paybacks: At $36 per unit, the California Community Colleges System offers a bargain to high-school grads and current workers seeking green and other skill. The system is the nation’s largest higher-ed program, with 72 districts and 112 colleges that 2.6 million students attend annually.