Future shock: Local schools’ sustainability programs answer many needs

VOCATION FORMATION: Students in Warren Wilson College’s sustainability oriented degree programs — which include both undergraduate and graduate options — are drawn by the opportunity to build relevant job skills they can leverage to make a positive impact on society and the planet, according to Amy Knisely, chair of the college’s environmental studies department. Photo courtesy of Warren Wilson College

For Asheville-area colleges and universities, providing degree programs on sustainability is a way to train students for the jobs of the future while helping create environmentally friendly policies. Several local campuses now offer sustainability-related programs ranging from certificates and associate degrees to master’s degrees. Some of those programs have been in place for several years; others are just getting started.

At Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Heath Moody, who chairs the school’s construction management, sustainability and construction science technologies department, says such programs aren’t just about a different way of looking at things.

“This is about looking to the future,” he explains. “We know climate change is real. There’s no debate in the science community that climate change is an issue. I think we’re seeing the last of the fossil fuels, and in my mind, soon they will be as obsolete as running a lamp on whale oil is today.”

Many options

For the past eight years, the school’s sustainability technologies program has been growing both in popularity and in its ability to place students into full-time jobs.

Students pursuing the associate degree in applied science learn about renewable energy, green building technology and environmental technology through courses covering topics like energy management, waste reduction, renewable energy, site assessment and environmental responsibility. In 2013 (the first year for which Moody has data), the program had just eight students. Today there are 21 full-time students and many part-timers.

“We have a lot of part-time students that come here to train for a new job,” says Moody. “What we’re finding is that they will take a couple of courses and start to look around for companies that need employees with their skills, and the companies will just hire them right up.”

Meanwhile, over at UNC Asheville, students may choose to focus on sustainability, but even those doing coursework in other fields can take sustainability classes. Additionally, the college’s McCullough Fellowship program provides funding, materials support and a faculty stipend for students engaged in projects in the Asheville area involving things like land use and conservation, urban planning and sustainable agriculture.

And Warren Wilson College recently signed a deal that allows students in its Advantage Program to pursue sustainability-related master’s degrees at partner schools in other areas after just three years of undergraduate courses at Warren Wilson. One of those partners is Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

“The 3+2 is an incredible opportunity to accelerate a leadership career in sustainability, whether in business, nonprofits or government,” says Eban Goodstein, director of graduate programs in sustainability at Bard. “Our 3+2 graduates are entering high-impact, purpose-driven careers and making a difference in their 20s.”

Students in the program can pursue a master of science degree in either environmental policy (which focuses on things like environmental science policy and natural resource economics) or in climate science and policy (which looks at the interplay among climate systems, ecosystems and agricultural systems).

Training for tomorrow’s jobs

The 3+2 programs aim to address various needs, says Amy Knisley, who chairs Warren Wilson’s environmental studies department.

“Colleges like Warren Wilson and Bard are working to be responsive to the job market out there, and these degree programs allow students to more quickly and effectively enter into the workplace,” she says. Employers, notes Knisley, “have told us that these are necessary skills for the future.” Students and their families, she continues, also want to ensure that the education they’re getting will be applicable in the coming, more environmentally conscious economy.

Graduates with either degree might work in the public sector, helping governments develop sustainable policies; in the private sector, helping corporations identify suitable sustainability practices; or even in an educational setting, teaching others about sustainability at zoos, public parks and other environmentally significant institutions.

GREEN TEAM: A-B Tech’s sustainability related courses empower students to implement sustainable policies through green building and installing clean energy equipment. Photo courtesy of A-B Tech
GREEN TEAM: A-B Tech’s sustainability related courses empower students to implement sustainable policies through green building and installing clean energy equipment. Photo courtesy of A-B Tech

Meanwhile, the students in A-B Tech’s sustainability programs will be the ones who’ll implement those policies. “Our students will be the construction managers … the ones installing solar panel systems and alternative fuel systems,” says Moody.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, sustainability jobs are one of the fastest-growing sectors in the country, along with health care. Between 2016 and 2026, the bureau predicts, nine out of 10 new U.S. jobs will be in the service sector, to the tune of more than 10.5 million jobs during that decade.

But sustainability is only one component of the broader green jobs category, which spans such areas as water conservation, biofuels, sustainable forestry, geothermal energy and recycling. Nationally, the median annual salaries in those fields range from about $30,000 to more than $160,000; sustainability jobs average about $45,000 a year.

More traditional trades may also offer possibilities.

“There are a lot of people retiring out of the trades,” notes Moody. “This presents tremendous opportunity for the younger generation to come in and apply sustainability practices within areas like construction management and HVAC.”

Hope for the future

Sometimes, the training program recognizes a need even if there aren’t any actual job openings yet.

“We were hearing that if you had an electric car, there was no mechanic in the area that could work on it,” says Carol Ann Lydon, chair of sustainability efforts at Blue Ridge Community College. The school now has several charging stations and several electric cars on campus for students to work on.

But there’s more at stake than just finding a job, school officials say.

“From a Warren Wilson perspective, we, as a college, draw and educate and graduate a lot of motivated, purposeful, mission-driven students,” Knisley explains. “Moving even more of these passionate students into the world with master’s degrees will make them even more impactful. I think you’ll see them begin to shift the landscape when it comes to policymaking and investments, and that their awareness of sustainability will begin to increasingly affect the bigger systems of economics and the government. And down the road, those shifts in the bigger systems will result in a much larger cultural shift that will play out across the system as a whole.”

Moody agrees. “These programs allow us to train people and put them in jobs they really care about,” he says. “I think we’ll see a massive movement at some point where we push aside all the politics and special interests to address the coming issues in a real way. … A lot of our students are depressed because they don’t see a pathway for moving beyond an oil economy ruled by those who make a living off of war and have a strange stranglehold on power in our country.

“I think programs like these give them hope that there is a better future out there, that there is a way out,” he continues. “It’s hope not only for our students but for our community. These programs will put them in meaningful jobs that address the issues facing our society.”

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About Liz Carey
Liz Carey is a veteran reporter living and working in Upstate SC. For more than 20 years, Liz has covered everything from crooked politicians to quirky characters from Minnesota to Florida and everywhere in between. Currently, she works as a freelance writer. Her latest book, Hidden History of Anderson County, will be released in February 2018. Follow me @lizardcsc

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One thought on “Future shock: Local schools’ sustainability programs answer many needs

  1. think critically

    When it comes to so-called “sustainable farms,” why do we always see pictures of smiling people gently interacting with the animals they intend to slaughter? How about some blood and guts, a bit of reality?

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