Creating the green jobs pipeline

Fourteen teachers from across the Coachella Valley spent their summer vacations learning about  job opportunities in the region’s green technology field and how to design classroom projects that will ensure their students have the necessary skills and knowledge to fill them.

The summertime “externship” program is part of the Coachella Valley Economic Partnership’s Workforce Excellence program — developed in partnership with College of the Desert — which is tackling the region’s Achilles heel for diversifying the economy and drawing well-paid, green tech jobs, our underskilled workforce.

I sat in on a program recap and celebration Wednesday at the CVEP offices in Palm Springs and it was easy to get caught up in the teachers’ excitement about the program and how they’re taking their summer experiences into the classroom.

The idea behind the program is to bring teachers into direct contact with city and business leaders to talk about the kinds of jobs that may be available in green tech and what kind of job skills students will need to develop now to prepare for the positions.  The teachers who participated are already teaching in green career academies — set up through CVEP’s Career Pathways program — where students are focused on preparing themselves for green jobs or, in the case of two teachers from Indio High School, laying the groundwork to launch one.

Pathways has also started highly successful health care academies at several valley high schools, where the focus is preparing students for careers as doctors, nurses and other health care providers. The career academy program has been drawing increasing attention as a national model for its comprehensive approach to workforce development.

Programs start early in elementary and middle schools and build to the high school academies, with job shadowing, mentoring and internship opportunities for students. CVEP also stays connected to valley students who leave for college — with scholarships and local internships — so hopefully they’ll come back here to work.

Right now we have two green academies in the valley —  the Renewable Energy Academy of Learning, or REAL, at Desert Hot Springs High School and the Green Energy and Technology Academy, or GrEAT, at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal.

For the externship program, the teachers made a series of field trips, visiting geothermal sites at the Salton Sea as well as Mission Springs and the Coachella Valley water districts, the Imperial Irrigation District and the cities of Coachella, Palm Desert and Desert Hot Springs to find out about their energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

The teachers also got coaching in project-based learning, said Donna Sturgeon, Career Pathways’ work-based learning coordinator. Starting with the information about the kinds of jobs that will be available in a specific green tech field, such as water conservation, the teachers take the basic skills the students will need for such jobs and work backwards, breaking them down into smaller, discrete tasks or skills that can all be linked to a class project. The project-related tasks and skills are also linked to state-mandated learning standards.

So at Desert Hot Springs REAL program, Todd Berg, a career technical teacher, has his students working on designing a grey water recycling system for the school’s car wash system, to take dirty water and recycle it for other uses, rather than just leaving it as polluted run-off.  The tasks involved range from figuring out what kind of grey water system might be needed, researching options, finding out about the legalities — what kind of permits might be needed — and creating blueprints of the system.

But the program is not just technical. Brian Martin, a social studies teacher who took part in the summer externship, is focusing on the impact of clean water on communities, having his sophomores and juniors look at the role of water systems in the growth of cities and how clean water is regulated.

Similarly, Elisa Santillan and Renee Miletic, English teachers at Desert Mirage’s GrEAT program, are now working with their students on presentation and communication skills, working up to interview skills, they said.

The skills Miletic is focusing on include “being able to explain things and answering questions; being in situations where they are in competition, making it into an opportunity to connect with other people,” she said.

The GrEAT program is having a big impact at Desert Mirage, where 90 percent of the students are low-income. Now in its third year, the academy has 100 students, including its first group of 25 seniors.

The programs are getting both teachers and students excited. One teacher at Wednesday’s event  talked about having to practically throw his kids out of the classroom — they wanted to stay after school to keep working on their projects.

Beyond preparing students for green jobs, CVEP’s program is busting many of the stereotypes about the valley’s low-income students — that they don’t have the smarts, motivation or discipline to succeed. For the teachers, it’s an opportunity to raise their professional expertise and “orient themselves twoard the new industry,” said Larry McLaughlin, director of COD’s Desert Energy Enterprise Center in North Palm Springs.

Kim McNulty, program manager for Career Pathways, noted that the valley has 71,000 K-12 students, 20,000 of them in high school and 3,000 of those in career academies.

What Career Pathways is doing is showing these kids that education — math, science, English, the basic skills — aren’t just dry subjects; they have real-world applications that can open doors for themselves and their families, while building diverse, sustainable jobs and communities across the valley.