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Staffing Up for the Green Economy

With the recent signing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the green economy has arrived. Is the American workforce ready?

By including $369 billion in funding and incentives to address the climate crisis and support environmental justice, the federal government finally has committed significant investment to meet the extraordinary challenges ahead.

Now it’s time to build a workforce that can translate that investment into impact.

Student virtual meeting with professor

Slowly, the economy has been moving in this direction anyway. According to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Green Skills report, the share of global green talent increased from 9.6 percent in 2015 to 13.3 percent in 2021. These are significant gains, but the IRA and local initiatives like the Green New Deal commit the nation to a much more rapid acceleration in the growth of the green sector — and, if the law’s architects are correct, millions of new jobs.

The only way to meet these needs effectively — in the time necessitated by a rapidly changing climate — is to provide a sound environmental education and green skills to more people in more regions of the country, and to do so more effectively and efficiently than ever before.

As president of Unity College – “America’s Environmental College” – I can say with confidence and from experience that it will be possible to meet the workforce needs, if higher education as a sector (including administrators, faculty, students, and parents) thinks differently about the two- and four-year college experience. The sector must re-evaluate how it delivers education and job training, and to whom.

The environmental crisis demands equitable access.

For far too long, we have confused the residential model of the liberal arts college with quality. It is undeniable that the residential model remains an ideal for some, but it is expensive and geographically limiting. We are discovering that we can design an educational experience through distance/hybrid offerings that is as effective and reaches more people.

The green economy is upon us. We must do everything we can to prepare our students for the work of their lives.

As peer institutions around the country suffered financial hardship, merged, or closed in the last decade, Unity has thrived by systematically adopting alternative methods of delivery. Prior to the pandemic, we broke away from the semester-based traditional residential campus model to focus on a mix of hybrid and online learning opportunities. As a result, Unity grew from 762 students in 2019, almost all of whom were from New England, to almost 4000 learners at the start of the 2022 school year. Our students now come from all 50 states and around the world: from Maine, New York, and California, but also Ohio, Alabama, Montana, South Korea, South Africa, and Kenya.

Virtual, extended, and 3D technologies make it possible for students to simulate biological and ecological field work on their laptops and smartphones no matter where they live and learn. Many are therefore able to work while they study, stay engaged within their communities, come to our residential campus, if they so choose, or take us up on our low residency expeditionary courses.

Glasses on notebook next to computer

Our model is scalable and successful in training the next generation of environmental workers. In 2022, 74% of Unity College graduates reported being employed in environmental fields. They are biologists, zoologists, and park rangers, as well as experts in clean energy, environmental mapping, and more. They are exactly the workers is needed to put the IRA’s green investments into action.

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the future of the environment, but we in higher education cannot afford to be pessimistic.

The green economy is upon us. We must do everything we can to prepare our students for the work of their lives…which will affect the lives of everyone.

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury is the 11th President and Chief Executive Officer of Unity College. Dr. Khoury is a seasoned leader with more than 20 years of experience in higher education. He has dedicated his career to creating accessible, affordable, and flexible higher education opportunities for people from all walks ... Read more

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