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Training talent


Jackson, Minn. — The emerging biofuels industry is offering up more than new ag markets. Developing talent for new rural jobs is another opportunity the Minnesota Renewable Energy Roundtable is paying attention to.

Dennis Hampel, dean of career and technical programs at Minnesota West Community and Technical Colleges, Joann Frederickson of Bemidji State University and Claudia Neuhauser of the University of Minnesota lead the Roundtable’s talent development team. It is addressing workforce issues such as training needs and educational curriculum development.

“We need to make sure the right training is being done and in the right numbers,” Hampel says. The Roundtable, coordinated by AURI, is a coalition of public and private organizations interested in promoting a Minnesota renewable-energy industry.

In late 2007, AURI, Minnesota corn and soybean grower associations and the Southwest Initiative Foundation commissioned Midwest biofuels industry study to determine future employee and training needs. The report found there could be as many as 7,000 to 10,000 job openings in the ethanol industry and 7,300 to 9,800 in biodiesel.

But Hampel says that’s only a fraction of what’s possible.

“An ethanol or biodiesel plant only needs a few operators,” Hampel says. Beyond that, “there is need for purchasers, people with training in contractual issues, electricians and plumbers.

“When you take a look at wind-energy development, for example, there has been tremendous growth in Minnesota. We are taking a look at the whole spectrum to get an understanding of how many technicians it will take to service the industry, how many maintenance people. But we’re also looking at how other areas such as construction jobs will be affected.”

The talent development team is primarily focused on two areas: K-16 education and customized training.

K-16 possibilities range from curriculum development for elementary students to baccalaureate degrees for post-secondary students. Younger students could participate in project-based activities including science fair projects in renewable energy.

Customized-training options could include plant operator and technician training and “green construction” training for contractors. “We’re not going to produce our way out” of energy demands, Hampel says. “We also need to be concerned with conservation and be able to bring contractors up to speed on green techniques.”

The talent development team is one of five Renewable Energy Roundtable working groups. Others include public policy and awareness, basic and applied research, infrastructure and funding.

The Roundtable represents more than 60 organizations including higher education, research, agriculture, state government and industry.

“Renewable energy is the mechanism, but what we’re really talking about is rural wealth creation and retention,” says Teresa Spaeth, AURI executive director. “Developing an industry that creates value-added uses for agricultural products, generates economic activity in rural areas and has the potential for good jobs in those communities is great for Minnesota and the region.”

Hampel says funding for curriculum development is a challenge. However, several grant possibilities could help finance educational efforts in Minnesota and beyond.