Students prep for green-collar careers
on September 30, 2009
Ben Johnson sat at a table in the clean, sunlit Berkeley High School library with several classmates. Adults wearing suits and nametags milled around with a couple dozen students. All awaited the start of an assembly to announce the school’s newest “green jobs” program. It’s a topic that concerns Johnson. After he graduates in 2010, Johnson said, he wants to work in the green economy.
“I want to be an architect,” the friendly-faced, lanky young man said enthusiastically. His hair is grown out into a small afro, and he was wearing a tan camo-print t-shirt. “I want to build ‘green’ buildings that are eco-friendly and save energy.”
Starting in Fall 2010, Johnson and his classmates will be able to take the bulk of their classes within Berkeley High’s pilot New Energy Academy, which will be partially funded by the San Francisco utility company Pacific Gas & Electricity (PG&E). PG&E – which reportedly made more than $1 billion in profits last year, according to the Sacramento Business Times – will contribute $25,000 to the new initiative. The California Department of Education will chip in $15,000 as well.
Berkeley High is one of five California high schools chosen by PG&E as a partner. The other participating schools are located in Fresno, Sacramento, Bakersfield, and San Joaquin County.
At the Berkeley High meeting to unveil the program, a blue PG&E sign stood in a corner of the school library amid shelves of books with titles like “A Latino Student’s Guide to College Success.” In the hallway beyond the library entrance, students staffed a folding table and handed out PG&E-branded pencils.
Some students sitting with Johnson said “it’s weird” that the company suddenly has such a high profile in their school. But one young woman, blonde with a lavender shirt, interjected, “It’s not a bad thing.” and received nods from her peers. A student sitting at the end of the table laughed, and added, “This will make PG&E look really, really good,” to wan smiles from the others.
“This public-private partnership will clearly create not just jobs for our students but careers in energy and utilities,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell told students and reporters. “This is a new economy for us. We’ll need critical thinkers. We all must be better communicators. We all need to be problem-solvers.”
The green energy school in Berkeley will be run as a “small school” within the larger high school. Currently, four other “small schools” within the high school offer concentrations in Arts and Humanities, Communication Arts, Community Partnerships, and Social Justice and Ecology. Some sixty to seventy students are expected to enroll in the green energy program next year.
“There really isn’t much difference these days between college prep and career prep,” Superintendent O’Connell continued during his speech. He said career academies – which the New Energy Academy will be – have a graduation rate of 96 percent, much higher than the statewide rate of 80 percent. “Clearly these programs work,” he told the audience.
PG&E Vice President, Ophelia Basgal, says that often, “students don’t see the connection between their studies and work opportunities.”
Not so at the New Energy Academy. Students will likely be partnered with PG&E workers who will mentor them, according to Basgal. There will be summer internship opportunities and “job shadowing” as well, she says.
This will be the utility company’s first high school program, Basgal said.
P&E approached the five California high schools in part because, according to Basgal, forty percent of its current workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next few years.
“PG& E approached us,” O’Connell said. “They said they want workers.”
State Senator Loni Hancock, who had sponsored legislation to increase the number of technical training programs available in high schools, also praised the new program. “Whether or not they’re installing solar panels or designing the next solar panels, we’re meeting the great historic challenge of our time – which is to turn around global warming,” she said with gusto. “Our challenge is to convert, to invent, to install.”
Public Utilities Commission President Mike Peevey also conjured the threats of global warming and climate change in his speech. “These lights don’t need to be on here,” he admonished, gesturing toward the harsh glow of flourescent lights above the library aisles. He said the New Energy program is one way to put students in a “better position in the new green economy,” and cited “tremendous potential for jobs” with good pay.
But PG&E’s Ophelia Basgal said it’s impossible to be predict how strong the green job market will be. “We have no idea what energy will be like in a decade,” she said. There aren’t many details available on what the New Energy curriculum will be like, either. That’s being worked out this school year, for a launch next fall. Basgal said she expects that it’ll be heavy in science, engineering, technical skills, and math.
“Some students will probably go on to universities to learn engineering, while others may decide to go into the field directly,” she said. Even if there aren’t enough “green” jobs for them, Basgal said, PG&E will likely need new workers to replace those who will soon retire. “We’ll still have wires,” she said.
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