Community colleges trying to create green-minded worker

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By Christina Couch

Going green is for the birds on the Chesapeake campus of Tidewater Community College.  Or at least it started with the birds.  Thanks to biology professor Lisa Behm, the college’s winged residents have upgraded their digs into homemade nest boxes located throughout campus in hopes that secure housing will encourage more to flock there. 

Nest boxes are just a small part of the college’s tree-hugging shift.  In the past 18 months, Behm has spearheaded a campus-wide environmental movement that includes reducing the college’s water use, mapping area wildlife and implementing nature camps for local kids, all in a successful effort to become the first property in Virginia to achieve Cooperative Sanctuary status from Audubon International. 

Serving as an environmental accreditation program of sorts, Audubon’s Cooperative Sanctuary program provides a stamp of approval to organizations that implement a multifaceted environmental improvement strategy. 

Behm says she hopes the cleaned-up campus and new courses included in Tidewater’s environmental awareness campaign will make students more nature conscious.?“These are our future leaders, and we’re trying to teach by setting an example,” says Behm. ? “Hopefully when they become executives at a corporation, they’ll take their green practices
into the office.”

Tidewater isn’t the only institution churning out Earth-minded workers. In the past year, several Virginia community colleges and vocational schools have added seminars for local industry leaders, work-force readiness programs to update employees on Earth-friendly technologies and college classes incorporating environmental awareness.? “Even in our English classes and in our general education coursework, a number of the faculty bring this issue to the classroom through literature and writing,” says Tidewater’s Chesapeake campus provost, Linda Rice. 

“I think we have a responsibility,” says Lester Smith, director of Blue Ridge Tech Prep Consortium at Blue Ridge Community College.? In addition to running Blue Ridge’s work-force development programs, Smith heads a $2 million community-based job training grant by the U.S. Department of Labor. Part of the grant funds a series of eco-conscious business seminars for area industry leaders.? “Saving our environment is on all our minds … it’s a very, very hot topic, and I think it’s important that Blue Ridge Community College take a leading role to help people learn more about how they can improve their profitability by using green technologies.”?

Community colleges are in a prime spot to create the next wave of green business leaders, perhaps even more so than four-year institutions.?Affordable, accessible and armed with development programs specifically tailored to local industries, these schools may be the perfect place for employees to retool their skills. “There really isn’t a system in this country for churning out people qualified to address the challenges of our industry, to build much healthier homes and address the challenges of rising energy prices,” says Andrew Grigsby, founder of the Culpeper-based sustainable planning firm Commonwealth Sustainability Works.? “There are a few other venues for training out there, but none that are already in the community and are already seen as a source of certified training for business.”

Grigsby and other business leaders are combating the problem by returning to the classroom themselves.? Since last fall, Grigsby has taught a workshop in green homebuilding at the Culpeper campus of Germanna Community College.?

Tidewater adopted a similar initiative last year by adding courses in environmentally conscious decor to its interior design degree.  The class encourages future designers to incorporate nontoxic interior paints, furniture made from locally harvested woods, and accessories made from recycled materials into their student portfolios.The trend is trickling own to the high school level as well.? Students at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center are working with The Gaines Group, a Charlottesville-based architecture firm, to create the world’s first certified environmentally conscious home built by high school students.? Slated for completion in May, the 1,300-square-foot home will feature energy-efficient windows, insulated panel roofing and low-emission paints, all of which are required for the project to obtain LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

The benefit of providing Earth-friendly vocational training is twofold, says the project’s lead architect, Charles Hendricks.? In addition to creating a work force prepared to take on the growing demand for eco-trained employees, it also stimulates several other Virginia-based businesses including construction suppliers, manufacturers and contractors.? “It’s changing the local economy on a number of levels,” Hendricks says. “Last year these kids built a house with green attributes [though they did not seek full LEED-certification] and a lot of those kids got hired based on their knowledge of green sustainability.”?

Grigsby asserts that creating an environmentally aware work force is more than a résumé-building credit for future workers — it’s a responsibility for all industry leaders.? “It’s absolutely critical for anyone in this field to get with the times and create healthier buildings,” says Grigsby.? “Anyone who isn’t doing that is guilty of professional negligence in my book.” 

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