Schools, Colleges Train Students for a Green Economy

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The AFT kicked off this year's "Good Jobs, Green Jobs" national conference in Washington, D.C., Feb. 8-10 with a pre-conference gathering that explored trends in green career and technical education.

The workshop on Feb. 7, featuring a public high school in Chicago and a technical college in Wisconsin, offered an overview on teaching rigorous technical skills considered highly desirable in green industries—and on teaching those skills even in places where the surrounding communities grapple with unemployment that's over 20 percent.

The Austin Polytechnical Academy High School in Chicago, for example, shares a building with two other schools in a neighborhood loaded with vacant properties and low-income families. Yet, the AFT members who teach there have just added a sustainability thread on wind turbine manufacturing. They also teach AP calculus, and the school's machining course (which is certified by the National Institute for Metallurgy) provides a rich mix of academic and technical skills to prepare students for either college or high-paying jobs. The school was featured on a recent segment of the PBS NewsHour.

Like the vo-tech high school, Milwaukee Area Technical College is developing its curricula around sustainability, but the Wisconsin college has long been a pioneer in environmental studies, including photovoltaic research, business partnerships, and "ladders" to certificates and degrees, said George Stone, a faculty member there and member of the Milwaukee Area Technical College Federation.

Stone (who just had to show off his green socks in honor of the Green Bay Packers' Super Bowl victory) offered five tips to AFT leaders whose members are teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics with an eye on sustainability: Brag about what you're doing; listen and engage your students and stakeholders; measure how you're doing; develop a sustainability plan; and make sure your union is represented on green committees and other bodies providing opportunities for shared governance. "The strength of our union has been key in developing a leadership role in the state," he said.

The green economy "is not a fluke, the way it was in the '70s," Stone added. "This is a long-term trend." Whether you're talking about one engine or the entire earth, "the longer you put off preventive maintenance, the more it's going to cost you."

Stone announced that a Green Energy Summit will be held in Milwaukee March 9-12 and emphasized that students can attend for free.

In addition to the highlighted schools, Rick Tanasi, president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers in Connecticut, talked about trends in preparing students for green careers.

Aside from the AFT's interest in developing vo-tech education for the green economy, the union also is engaged in safeguarding the health and safety of workers—for example, by reducing their exposure to chemical hazards on the job—as well as in promoting economic justice for workers in green fields such as recycling.

All these areas figured into the green jobs conference, including remarks by Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, and keynote addresses by U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and other top Obama administration officials. The conference was packed with workshops on the clean energy industry, workforce development and education.

The AFT once again was a sponsor of the green jobs conference, which was coordinated by the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups launched in 2006 by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club.

In conjunction with this year's conference, the Sierra Club is offering AFT members a two-year membership in the Sierra Club at a special discounted rate of $40. More details are available online. [Annette Licitra]

February 10, 2011