Washington needs trained workers for new energy economy

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 30, 2013 

Rapid changes in a wide range of energy industries will be key components for the growth of our state's economy for decades to come. What is missing from today's workforce are individuals who can think across disciplines - from understanding the science of climate change to product commercialization to the policy landscape - and can apply a diverse set of skills to solve real-world problems.

This new energy economy - from renewable power to energy efficiency - represents a tremendous economic opportunity for the state of Washington. Today, our state ranks 10th among all 50 states in terms of clean economy jobs, and the Seattle area ranks 13th among the 100 largest metro areas, according to the Brookings Institute.

How can our state lead the nation and world in this new energy economy? Above all else we must invest in the training and skills for our citizens so they will be able to enter this new and exciting field. There will be need for scientists, entrepreneurs, skilled technical workers and others able to push new technologies to match the increasing demand for solutions.

It is critically important that our state make a commitment to reap the economic benefits of this emerging field. A relatively small investment can pay off many times over - leading to increased employment for our citizens in high-skill, high-wage professions, a significant boost for our state's economic vitality and new tax revenues for state and local government.

So while we were happy to learn that Gov. Inslee had included funding in his budget proposal for promising new clean energy research, we are also very supportive of programs to build a job-ready workforce.

Western Washington University's new Institute for Energy Studies Program is a unique, innovative program that can do just that. As the Legislature continues deliberations in special session, we will continue advocating for this modest investment to meet the needs of Washington state's employers.

To ensure the state has access to a robust talent pool of future leaders, Western is launching the first-of-its-kind Institute for Energy Studies to provide students with the diverse mix of skills necessary to tackle this complex global challenge and to advance the new energy economy.

The Institute for Energy Studies at Western combines science, technology, economics, business and policy, in, what is believed will be, the nation's first interdisciplinary, undergraduate energy studies degree. A degree designed to prepare students to become the leaders, managers and entrepreneurs of the new energy economy.

As business leaders and members of the advisory board we have been "hands on" in helping to guide the development of the institute program. We are confident that, when fully funded, the institute program will address a critical gap in our state's education continuum by providing a comprehensive, interdisciplinary energy-focused bachelor degree - a degree that does not currently exist in our state. We are impressed that Western is already actively partnering with community colleges, preparing to link their programs for energy-related skilled and technical workers to the Institute for Energy Studies program. The Western program will provide opportunities for undergraduate research and be a pipeline for new researchers in energy-related fields of science, technology, economics and policy.

Western's institute is just one example of how we must develop the human capital to address this burgeoning field. This is an emerging opportunity and growing. We cannot afford to sit idly by while other states train the future leaders for the new energy economy in our own state. We have seen this happen far too often in other industries, where the children of our citizens work for talent brought in from other parts of the country. It is time we developed our own leaders, right here, right now, to help nurture this new energy economy.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

David Allen is executive vice president of McKinstry. J. Thomas Ranken is president and CEO of the Washington Clean Technology Alliance.

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