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Community Colleges and the Green Economy

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I am a proud alumnus of Los Angeles Valley College, one of the nation's 1,200 community colleges. Last week President Obama praised community colleges as "the unsung heroes of America's education system," critical to our success in the "global competition to lead in the growth industries of the 21st century."

That seems a tall order for schools that, as the president acknowledged, don't often get the same resources as four-year colleges and universities, even though they educate nearly half the student population -- some 12 million students -- each year. How can they meet the challenge, and where are they going to get the resources to do so? Here's how they did it in The Dalles, Oregon, a small town at the center of farm country 90 miles east of Portland.

Four years ago, when U.S. and international windpower companies began flocking to north-central Oregon, Columbia Gorge Community College saw a gap between the local workforce and the technical skills needed to build and operate the turbines. The 5,800-student college quickly set up a six-month training course to meet the industry's short-term needs, then worked closely with employers to develop a renewable energy technology program including a two-year degree. This is exactly the type of opportunistic challenge that community colleges are in a unique position to address. Today hundreds of Columbia Gorge graduates are working for the area's constantly-expanding windpower companies, and the national windpower industry recognizes the college as one of the premier workforce development programs in the country

Renewable energy, energy efficiency, green building, sustainable manufacturing -- these are the growth industries the president referred to when he said "we will not keep those jobs on our shores without community colleges." To lead in these growth industries, America needs millions of workers with new skills. For decades, community colleges have been the backbone of American workforce training. Because they are nimble and closely attuned to local community needs, they are inherently positioned to be influential leaders of the movement for a sustainable economy.

Columbia Gorge is just one of the places where community colleges are already in the vanguard of green jobs training. But there has been no national initiative to bring together schools with innovative programs and those just gearing up their sustainability programs - a network where community colleges can learn from each other, exchange information about best practices and access resources for building a curriculum that works - until now.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has partnered with ecoAmerica to create The SEED Center, a leadership initiative, FREE resource center, and online sharing environment for community colleges to dramatically scale up programs to educate Americans to compete in the green economy. I'm on ecoAmerica's board, and we're excited about this opportunity to step up and help restore American prosperity.

SEED stands for Sustainability Education and Economic Development. The second half of the phrase is important, because the initiative reaches far beyond campus. Community college presidents who sign on to the initiative -- more than 300 have already joined as Charter members, more than one-third of the AACC membership -- commit not only to develop a green jobs curriculum, but to carry the opportunity to their communities. They'll promote sustainability in the workplaces of local industry, government agencies and nonprofits, helping them see the promise of the green economy.

At the White House Community College Summit, President Obama observed that, "throughout our history, whenever we've faced economic challenges, we've responded by seeking new ways to harness the talents of our people." The SEED Center is a bold and ambitious response, and one of the reasons we will meet the current challenge.

Ed Begley Jr. is an actor and environmental activist.

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