A surge in business for algae-biofuels developer Sapphire Energy has led to a new but welcome problem: The firm is needing to hire experienced workers but is finding slim pickings.
The San Diego green crude producer typically hires from within the biomedical field. Employees are paid full-time while they train for work in the developer's labs or at its research and development facility and biorefinery in New Mexico.
But Stephen Mayfield, Sapphire Energy co-founder and director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, has a more efficient method in mind.
The algae expert is helping to lead a new post-graduate training program that is building a ready workforce ahead of an anticipated boom in biotechnology development.
Around 100 students are expected to enroll this year in EDGE (Educating and Developing Workers for the Green Economy), a public-private partnership that offers industrial and technical certificate programs in biofuels and biotech production, analysis and processing. For now, the initiative does not include ethanol.
A Masters of Advanced Science will be offered next year through the University of California, San Diego for biotech entrepreneurs.
"The EDGE initiative is really a new paradigm for how academic institutions interact with commercial partners so that we're actually teaching our students skills that they can take out and use to get a job," Mayfield told SolveClimate News.
For businesses, he continued: "It is a cost-saving efficiency move. Now you get employees that come pre-trained."
The initiative is in step with similar efforts nationwide seeking to steer students and second-career professionals into clean energy industries such as wind, solar and geothermal that still lack the manpower to match growing opportunities.
EDGE's first certificate course began in March at MiraCosta community college in northern San Diego County, and a second set of students will start classes this summer.
Tuition will be waved the first two years as the program is tweaked, and course materials will later be packaged for nationwide distribution.
Calif. Biotech Grows by 50 Percent
Mayfield said the idea for EDGE came a couple years back when California's labor agency took interest in the job-creation potential of bioenergy. After meeting with cleantech companies and institutions around San Diego, the agency made available $4 million in state funding to develop an industry training program.
Overall, the number of industrial biotech companies in California have grown by 50 percent in the last five years, with nearly half of that growth between 2009 and 2010, according to a statewide Industrial Biotech Workforce Survey.
Algae development alone has created 410 jobs around San Diego since 2007, resulting in $56 million in direct economic activity and $108 million in overall activity per year, according to a recent analysis by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional planning agency.
Algae-related jobs could reach 500 this year and up to 700 next year as developers prepare to launch commercial-scale demonstration projects, Mayfield said.
"All of these companies are starting to build their pilot plants, so we'll know a year from now how successful they are," he said. "If they are successful, then it won't be, 'Here's our four pilot plants that we need employees for.' It will go to, 'Here are our 4,000 plants.'"
Ecotech Institute to Help Colo. Compete
In Colorado, that kind of rapid growth is already underway in the wind and solar industries, forcing developers to compete for the small pool of experienced electricians, technicians and engineers.
"If you look at just wind energy, the install base is getting larger and larger, so more players are coming into the space to do the development and construction work," said Doug Nieb of the Broomfield, Colo.-based Renewable Energy Systems (RES) Americas. "Everyone in the industry is competing more broadly for qualified talent.
"[The challenge] is finding people who have some experience in the industry. For example, if you're hiring someone to do electrical work, in the past you've had to go out and find someone with an electrical background and train them to do wind or solar."
To tackle the workforce shortage, the wind developer has teamed up with the one-year-old Ecotech Institute near Denver, which earlier this month unveiled a new $10 million flagship campus that will host up to 1,200 students.
"As graduates become available from this and other institutions, we'll be able to put them directly into our workforce without having to rely on on-site training," Nieb said.
Some 250 students have been enrolled since last July in two-year associate's degree programs for wind and solar energy technology, electrical engineering technology, energy efficiency, environmental technology and general renewable energy training.
Glenn Wilson, the institute's academic dean, said that Ecotech's parent company Education Corporation of America, which operates private higher education institutions, selected Colorado to host the campus because of its wealth of cleantech companies and top-notch institutions, such as the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the city of Golden.