Initiative seeks “green” for Michigan’s economy, environment

Juliana Goodlaw-Morris is seeing green — and helping a number of community colleges in Michigan do the same.

Goodlaw-Morris is campus field manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Campus Ecology Program and regional co-lead for the national Greenforce Initiative, launched in late 2010.

The initiative is building the capacity of community colleges in Michigan and five other states to help workers, including underserved adults, gain the education, training and experience needed to succeed in sustainability-related or “green” careers. The schools also are exploring ways to strengthen environmental sustainability on and around their campuses.

“Community colleges are often experienced at developing programs that reflect the unique needs and interests of local students, residents and employers. Greenforce builds on those strengths to create positive environmental and economic impacts at the local level and beyond,” said Goodlaw-Morris.

A view from below shows a man hovering over a solar panel below two windmills.

Greenforce is coordinated by NWF, the largest private, nonprofit environmental conservation education and advocacy organization in the U.S., and Jobs For the Future (JFF), a leading national policy, research and action organization that seeks to accelerate education and career advancement for disadvantaged young people and adults. Both are longtime Charles Stewart Mott Foundation grantees.

The initiative is funded in Michigan by a two-year, $250,000 grant from Mott to NWF. The Bank of America Charitable Foundation is supporting the initiative’s work in Illinois, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Mott’s longstanding support for industry-specific — or sectoral — workforce development strategies in its home state and across the country has totaled $95.9 million since 1978. The funding for Greenforce also reflects the Foundation’s interest in the expanding role of community colleges in connecting workers to the changing labor market.

Goodlaw-Morris notes that Greenforce already has “sparked positive outcomes in Michigan, with the schools taking the initiative’s goals and really running with them.”

One example is Lansing Community College, which teamed up with nonprofits and businesses in the state’s capital for “Restoration Works.” The project is helping students learn green construction and home-energy auditing techniques while they restore two vacant, tax-foreclosed houses. The properties are being retrofitted with energy-efficient windows, doors, insulation and fixtures, and eventually will be made available as affordable housing to area low-income families.

On the state’s east side, St. Clair County Community College has developed both a walking tour and interactive online virtual tour that teach students and visitors about the school’s use of alternative energies, such as geothermal, solar and wind, and its bioswale system, which uses landscaping elements to remove silt and pollution from storm water runoff. The college is also developing videos to highlight how those sustainability activities and the school’s related academic curriculums provide hands-on learning and job training for students.

Among community colleges on the state’s west coast, Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor is developing a job training program and working laboratory that will use large steel freight containers to create the exterior shells of eco-friendly, functional spaces for people to work and live. The concept has gained steam in the U.S. and abroad in recent years, with architects and engineers exploring ways to reuse an estimated 300 million shipping containers sitting empty in freight yards around the world.

As with many of the Greenforce projects, local partnerships and collaboration form the backbone of the Lake Michigan College initiative, which is guided by a communitywide alliance of representatives from the public and private sectors.

“The whole concept has just captured the imagination of the professional community and the public,” said Ken Flowers, department chair of Technologies at the college and director of the school’s M-TEC workforce training program.

He says the local group, which came together in late 2011, is “imagining a modularized coursework approach, where students develop core competencies through classes already offered by the college and where their specialized training needs are met through the addition of a few new courses.”

Gloria Mwase, program director at JFF, says Lake Michigan College’s integration of existing academic offerings is an example of how schools can create innovative green programs that meet the needs of students, employers and communities “without having to completely reinvent the wheel.”

She notes the growing exchange of information, models and support among the community colleges participating in Greenforce in Michigan and around the country.

“The initiative is helping the schools to connect, to see what each other is doing, the lessons they’re learning and the successes — and challenges — they’re facing,” said Mwase.

“It’s giving them a comfort level where they can call up one another and ask, ‘How did you get that started?’ That has far-reaching potential for their ongoing success.”

Greenforce also is helping the schools position students and employers for future trends in the country’s economy, says Stephen Lynch, senior project manager at JFF and, along with Goodlaw-Morris, regional co-lead for the initiative.

Such efforts in Michigan include a series of customized labor market reports, currently in development, that identify emerging industries that need workers with green skills; define the unique skill sets sought by those sectors; and analyze the expected supply and demand for trained workers.

That information, says Lynch, will help the schools “develop job training programs that prepare students for positions across multiple industries, making them more marketable to a variety of employers and, ultimately, making the region more attractive to businesses looking to locate near pools of ‘green-skilled’ workers.”

Goodlaw-Morris says that the next year of Greenforce will see the participating colleges, including those in Michigan, deepen their efforts to engage employers and other partners in their respective green programs. The schools also will continue exploring opportunities to enhance sustainability efforts on their campuses and in their communities.

That ongoing work bodes well for Michigan’s economic and environmental future, she says.

“The programs being launched and enhanced in the state through Greenforce are helping to promote good-paying, family-sustaining jobs; business opportunities for employers and entrepreneurs; and positive impacts for the environment. At the end of the day, everybody wins.”