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Connecting Curriculum and Students to the Green Economy Sectors

By Heidi SmithHeid Smith headshot.JPG

After 18 months of gathering data, facilitating discussions between industry representatives and educators, and studying how workforce information is collected and coded in Washington State, the Educating for a Green Economy (EGE) Project is preparing to release a report based on its findings in September.

Now in draft form, the EGE report has several key findings with implications for both education and industry. The report’s main recommendations focus on making changes to ensure green jobs are counted and show up in the system for job seekers, introduce younger students to green job pathways, increase equitable access to those pathways, and create strong collaborations between K-12 education, career and technical colleges, workforce and economic development, and industry.

“We’re taking everything we’ve learned about the alignment of K-12 schools, post-secondary education, and employment and applying it to how we can let kids know about the opportunities that exist in these green economy sectors,” says Kathryn Kurtz, executive director of the Pacific Education Institute (PEI).

EGE was born out of a 2018 workforce study of outdoor jobs in the natural resources, agricultural, energy and outdoor recreation industries. Funding was provided through the state legislature to the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board to complete the study. The study found that the data used to determine job availability was insufficient for several reasons, which resulted in decreasing opportunities for youth to learn the knowledge and skills needed to be prepared for those sectors.

Based on these findings, Governor Jay Inslee’s office worked with PEI and E3 Washington to create the EGE project with funding provided by the state Employment Security Division. These two organizations were selected because of their experience with outreach and education. PEI delivers high-quality professional learning and consultation services for educators in equitable, locally relevant, career connected, outdoor STEM education. E3 Washington (Educators for Environment, Equity and Economy) is an association for environmental and sustainability educators whose mission is that every young person in Washington State should participate in environmental and sustainability education experiences that are responsive to community and youth assets, needs, and aspirations.

19-0818-EGEPanel Tours SPI Mill.jpg
PHOTO COURTESY OF PACIFIC EDUCATION INSTITUTE
As part of their work to understand the availability of green jobs, the EGE
team toured a number of facilities, such as a Sierra Pacific Mill.

Accessing Washington’s green economy

In November 2018, the EGE team set out to learn about the current and projected state of the green economy, identify strategies to ensure all youth, including those with barriers to employment, have access to green economy jobs, and make recommendations to strengthen the green economy.

The project focused on three critical sectors: natural resources, agriculture, and energy. The first goal was developing an understanding of available green jobs, exploring the emerging trends reported by employers, and learning if and how students are made aware of the pathways to those jobs. EGE created advisory panels with representatives from workforce and economic development groups, K-12 Career and Technical Education, colleges and green economy employers to oversee and advise the statewide effort. “We would have a panel of five employers or workforce professionals with teachers, CTE directors, superintendents and counselors in the audience,” says Kurtz.

In February for example, PEI hosted a panel at the Washington Association for Career and Technical Administrators conference in Vancouver that featured speakers from Sierra Pacific, SDS Lumber, Wind River Biomass, the Washington State Labor Council, and Weyerhaeuser. Panelists discussed emerging trends in forestry, and CTE directors from across the state learned about 21st-century forest sector jobs from management to mills so they could better prepare students for the jobs of the future. After the panels, the team surveyed the participants to identify gaps and opportunities to support alignment of the K-12 system to workforce.

Project findings

One key conclusions of the project: for students to be ready for green economy job opportunities in the areas where they live, waiting to introduce the subject until they graduate from high school is too late. While most workforce development efforts focus on post-secondary education, this approach leaves out over 50 percent of Washington State residents. As of 2017, only 47 percent of Washington residents between the ages of 25 and 64 had earned a post-secondary degree, a number that drops even further for four-year degrees. “If we’re looking at workforce development connected to higher education programming, and just 24 percent of the state’s population completes four-year degrees, we are missing a lot of students” says Kurtz. “We’re recommending both funding and policy to support equitable, K-12 workforce development pathways to family-wage careers.”

According to the report, “Earlier exposure to green economy opportunities, experiences, and preparation will give younger students a head start in exploring the options they may pursue, and how their learning relates to real-world experiences and careers that are available to them.”

Although the green economy is expanding, in many rural and remote regions, students are unaware of potential career opportunities. “Without awareness of and exposure to green careers through integrated work-based learning at the PreK-12 level, many young people will miss out on family-wage jobs that allow them to remain in their hometowns, where their community economies can not only survive but thrive,” the report’s authors warn.

A spokesperson for Weyerhaeuser agreed, noting that. “The job opportunities available in the forest industry are more interesting and diverse than many people think, and the career paths we offer are especially beneficial for rural areas that are dealing with long-term demographic and economic challenges.”

The report recommends developing a braided pathway system that integrates academic and applied learning such as PEI’s outdoor-based FieldSTEM professional development model. Lisa Perry, director of community relations for Sierra Pacific Industries, believes that approach will benefit both students and industry. “Kids will be more interested in school if there might be a local job at the end of it,” she says. “It will also make it easy for us to get the word out about careers with family-wage jobs in the communities where we operate. That message is not being communicated at this point so having kids exposed to careers earlier will make a difference.”

Another recommendation: increased collaboration and system development among education, economic workforce and development, and industry would “help to ensure that these partners focus on shared goals and strategies for student learning and career preparation in ways that benefit students, employers and the green economy.”

Lindsey Williams, the director of the Agriculture & Natural Resource Center of Excellence (ANR), says better communication between industry and educators is critical. ANR is one of ten Centers of Excellence statewide created in 2004 to bridge the gap between industry needs and community and technical college course offerings.

“Green jobs move the state forward,” says Williams. “That’s a very important message to get to the counselors, teachers and parents in the K-12 system”.

One challenge the report identified was the way jobs are coded under workforce guidelines, which do not accurately reflect the availability of green jobs. Moving forward, one of EGE’s stated goals is to (collect and disseminate job information based on data that reflects the current and future green jobs.)

At issue is the fact that jobs coded as ‘high-demand’ attract funding but many green jobs, though essential in rural and remote areas, don’t generate enough volume to be considered high-demand. The EGE report coined a separate term, ‘critical demand’ to describe green jobs. “I would love to see better occupational data that represents these jobs for the value they provide,” says Williams. “We’ve seen what happens when the forest industry leaves an area. Communities absolutely crumble There may have been only 25 positions, but they fed another 150 or more people. I want people to understand how critical and essential these positions are and to value them like we do.”

Historically, industries that offer green jobs have lacked diversity, another issues the report addresses. A stated goal is to “strengthen criteria for workforce development projects to diversify the workforce and meet remote and rural community needs.”

“We need to recognize that as long as we still have those barriers in place, we’re losing out on talent,” says Williams. “We need people who are going to think outside the box and with the next generation coming into the workforce, there’s a much stronger focus on what green means and how important it is in the long term. Diversity and inclusion are ultimately going to strengthen the talent pool.”

For community outreach professionals like Perry, that’s already a focus. “We’re working to get the word out about our industry in all sorts of communities,” she says. “We want people to know that environmental and science-based jobs are living wage jobs. Getting that message to more diverse communities does nothing but help us in the long term.”

The report is now available on PEI’s website, and Kurtz is already setting up meetings with key stakeholders to explore what workforce initiatives are currently underway and how the report’s finding might align with those. “We want to see these recommendations moving forward,” she says. “It’s always been our intention that this report will impact policy.”

The Benefits of Legislation

Although everyone who works in the forestry sector understands that it’s a green industry, this isn’t common knowledge. Credit needs to be given to the work the forestry industry has done in recent years to meet environmental or “green” goals through legislation. This EGE study is one of the first to really support the reality that the forest industry is a “green sector” in Washington. It is important for all forestry and natural resources professionals to understand the importance of legislation to be able to articulate why the industry is green.

Several pieces of legislation contributed to existing sustainable practices in the forest industry. All recent work is grounded in the Forest and Fish Agreements of the 1990s. HB 2541 (2009) established a base of forestlands that may be used for commercial forestry. The Department of Natural Resources was required to develop landowner conservation proposals that supported forest landowners by December 31, 2011. HB 1484 (2009) expanded the riparian open space program to include lands that contain federally listed threatened or endangered species. The Forest Practices Board must also implement an acquisition program for riparian open space and critical habitat. SB1254 (2011) recommits the University of Washington (UW) to forestry education through its Institute of Forest Resources. HB 2238 (2012) uses funds that would pay for compensatory mitigation to fund programs for forest landowners.

HB 1254 enlarges the scope of the Institute of Forest Resources’ mission to reflect modern forestry issues. HB1275 (2017) provided streamlined permitting for aquatic investments on forest land. SB5450 (2017) directed a pathway to allow mass timber tall wood building construction. SB 5998 (2019) exempts working forestlands from increases in the real estate excise tax to protect the working forestland base. HB 1784 (2019) requires forest health investments to be prioritized to protect working forests. Most recently in March 2020, HB 2528 was passed recognizing the contributions of the state’s forest products sector as part of the state’s global climate response.

Key Takeaways from the Educating for a Green Economy (EGE) Project report that are of interest to SAF members

  • Waiting until college to offer work-integrated learning forest opportunities is too late for most Washington students. Public/private partnerships that support development of PreK-12 competency-based pathways for students will allow more students to be prepared for work in the industry. For the industry, this means continuing to offer and support work site visits paired with learning objectives for both students and educators.
  • Industry participation in regional workforce development projects leads to the ability of the workforce system to meet the needs of industry. An example of this was the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council leading a forestry workgroup that identified a need for log truck drivers. This led to the development of a log truck driving program at Grays Harbor College to fulfill that need.
  • Workforce development projects funded by the state through Career Connect Washington (CCW) are focused on numbers of career launch opportunities, such as paid internships, pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships. To ensure students continue on a forestry pathway out of high school, the sector will need to make a commitment to provide career launch opportunities and provide a mechanism to fund a position long term to coordinate the effort. CCW has a program that currently funds the development of the system.
  • Many workforce development decisions are made based on statewide “high demand” and “high wage” project determinants. Both of these terms are problematic to natural resource industries since they typically employ workers in “living wage” jobs in more rural communities. With the number of high-tech, health, aerospace and engineering jobs along the I-5 corridor, natural resource jobs will not show up in statewide data unless job data is communicated with more clarity. The report suggest using a new term coined by EGE “critical demand” to reflect the importance of natural resource jobs to economic viability of our small towns and ensuring that educators and career counselors help students understand how wages and cost of living differ across regions.

Heidi Smith is the grant writer for the Pacific Education Institute. She can be reached at 360.464.8706 or at grantwriter@pacificeducationinstitute.org. For more information about the Educating for a Green Economy (EGE) Project, visit https://pacificeducationinstitute.org/work/policy/ or contact Kathryn Kurtz at kkurtz@PacificEducationInstitute.org.

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