President Joe Biden and California Governor Gavin Newsom are investing significant federal and state dollars in new technologies — all in the pursuit of clean air, clean energy, healthier lives and green jobs for our communities.
The discussions related to jobs are often framed from a historical perspective of competing interests — economic sustainability versus sound environment practices, corporate profits versus healthy communities.
But I believe that with a green economy, we have the opportunity to show that these competitions are based on false dichotomies.
Kern County, in California’s Central Valley, is creating a prosperous future with environmentally supportive practices; and the Kern Community College District (Kern CCD) has become a perfect partner for businesses, industries and county government in creating an abundance of green jobs that are also good jobs, an important step toward establishing a strong, local economy.
A few years ago, Kern CCD began developing an “educational ecosystem” to support the creation of a new green energy economy. It included topics like carbon capture and sequestration, microgrids and the building of a clean transportation infrastructure.
This energy educational ecosystem requires that we stay connected to emerging research on clean technology and decarbonization and develop a flexible curriculum to keep up with that research and resultant new technologies. It also requires that our colleges connect with underemployed and underrepresented workers; work with employers to create good jobs and pathways to them; and educate communities on the impacts of new technologies.
The approach redefines the role of community colleges and helps accelerate the deployment of new technologies. It can be replicated throughout California and beyond.
For over 100 years, the Central Valley’s economy has been a major economic engine for the state and the nation, built largely on agriculture, with scores of predominately immigrant workers and their families providing over half of the nation’s agricultural output. It’s also one of the largest oil-producing regions in the U.S.
Yet the Central Valley lives in the shadow of metropolitan juggernauts: Silicon Valley to the north and greater Los Angeles to the south. The immense wealth generated by our oil and agricultural economies has not resulted in wealthy Central Valley communities, which are plagued by intractable socioeconomic problems. The region, broadly speaking, is characterized by low-incomes, and has long grappled with unemployment rates above the national average and education rates far below the national average.
The “community” in community colleges can be a real answer for good jobs with equity.
Educationally, many of the Central Valley families with means send their kids to colleges in the California State system or the world-class University of California (UC) system; children from low-income families are less likely to go to college, and if they do go, more likely to go to community colleges, which are almost always cheaper than four-year universities, closer to home and more tightly connected to their surrounding communities.
But I have found that opportunity is often hidden within adversity. And here in the Central Valley, the hidden opportunity is provided by the close and connected nature of our communities and our history of creating collective enterprises that can grow flourishing economies.
Last month, that opportunity become a reality. Kern communities were awarded two Department of Energy Local Energy Action Plan (LEAP) grants designed to support locally tailored pathways to clean energy.
In the coming months we’ll use that assistance to upgrade our community colleges’ curricula, specifically for microgrid technology and carbon capture and sequestration.
The Central Valley is perfect for launching this kind of green jobs transformation: The San Joaquin Valley is home to 22 giant oil fields, each of which has produced over 100 million barrels of oil. Exhausted oil fields and related geological formations deep under the earth’s surface can be repurposed to serve as storage units for carbon recaptured from factories, power plants and directly from the atmosphere itself.
Our community colleges are already leading the development of green economy curricula in coordination with the companies that will need a diversity of skilled workers going forward. Many of our students — our future green energy technology workers — come from our low-income communities. The green economy skills we provide them will lead to greater earnings and greater life opportunities. The federally funded research and development National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), sponsored by the Department of Energy, will directly assist in the further development of educational resources and the recruitment of these underrepresented workers.
Hidden within adversity is often opportunity.
And our close-knit communities support the connections among companies, unions, schools and municipalities that allow all of us to work together, with a strong vision and commitment to greater equity.
The hub of this successful (and growing) coordination is our community colleges. They have become an incubator for marginalized and low-income individuals and families, providing an opportunity to transcend subsistence living and settle into good jobs with access to quality life amenities.
We’re fully confident that cooperation between all stakeholders will uplift our most vulnerable communities — inside and outside California.
The real story of this development is that the “community” in community colleges can be a real answer for good jobs with equity — and the development of the future workforce.
Sonya Christian is chancellor of the Kern Community College District in California.
This piece about green jobs and community colleges was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.