Skilling the Workforce and Leading an Equitable Clean Energy Transition

Manufacturing regions have long been looking for a spark to revitalize communities and bring jobs to areas that have lost workers to automation and market transition. In Normal, Illinois, that spark has been found by way of electric vehicle manufacturing.

The Great Lakes region is experiencing a renaissance of sorts in high-tech manufacturing that is transforming the region from the rust belt to the heart of the electric future. New electric vehicle and energy storage production facilities have been announced, or have begun production, with Rivian Automotive in Normal, Illinois, General Motors and Ford in Michigan, and Lyon Electric in Montreal, Quebec and Joliet, Illinois.

Assisted by progressive state policy such as Illinois’ Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, along with the inter-state Regional Electric Vehicle for the Midwest (REV Midwest) network, and federal policy such as Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Great Lakes is well-positioned to play a leading role in the equitable transition to a clean, resilient, and sustainable advanced economy.

A critical part of completing that connection will be a well-trained and educated workforce.

With a unique position to drive both equity and workforce training, community and technical colleges play an important role in the realization of this transition. Despite receiving $8,800 less in state revenue per student enrolled compared with four-year higher education institutions, community colleges serve just under half of all undergraduate students in the United States at approximately 44 percent.² 

Broken down by race and ethnicity, community colleges served 55% of Hispanic undergraduates, 44% of Black undergraduates, 45% of Asian undergraduates, and 41% of White undergraduates, making community colleges a key driver of providing affordable access to high-tech training for diverse populations.¹

Heartland Community College, founded in 1990 in Normal, Illinois, is the youngest community college in the State of Illinois. As part of the institution’s mission to provide accessible, equitable, innovative learning opportunities and resources that enrich our community, it was vital to look at the regional opportunities with fresh eyes. 

Dramatic changes prompted by reshoring of operations, vertical integration of supply chains, advancements in autonomous and automation technology, as well as advanced energy technologies, provide significant challenges, but also opportunity. 

When Rivian announced their purchase of a shuddered Mitsubishi auto plant in Normal, IL in 2017, things progressed quickly. A strong partnership was formed between the College and Rivian Automotive along with other manufacturing and renewable energy partners with plans to launch the first open enrollment Electric Vehicle Technology Associate of Applied Science Degree program in the United States as well as to begin building out coursework and certification programs in Energy Storage Technology. 

This work began just a few short years ago when the tipping point for Electric Vehicles still seemed decades ahead. Industry conversation suggested it was closer than many believed—with the end of the manufacture of Internal Combustion Engine vehicles expected between 2025 and 2035.⁴ With this insight, Heartland Community College set in motion the creation of an Electric Vehicle Technology training program, connected with other institutions across the nation leading this work, and created a plan of action. Heartland formed a private-public partnership with Rivian and applied for state funding to develop a first in the nation Electric Vehicle-Energy Storage Manufacturing Training Academy (EVES). With the support of $7.5M awarded from the State of Illinois to build out a new facility on campus and immediately stand up the program at a leased interim facility off campus, Heartland developed the training program, secured state approval, and welcomed its first cohort of Electric Vehicle Technology students in Fall 2021. The accelerated timeline for the creation and implementation of the program met the urgency of an industry that is on pace to add 5,000 jobs to the area by 2022. 

The EVES program would not have been possible without the college’s partnership with Rivian. Yet, it is not limited to any one employer, so any student from any background or employee from any employer can enter the program to prepare for their first career or upskill into a more specialized role from their current position. 

According to a recent report from the Advanced Energy Economy, in 2019, the United States hosted 15,200 businesses with 155,000 workers in the Electric Transportation sector with the number projected to nearly double to reach 296,000 workers by 2024. ³ Heartland Community College is proud to be leading the expansion of workforce training programs and expanding the development of skills in electric vehicle manufacturing, charging infrastructure, and energy storage. 

The transition to a clean, advanced energy economy can be the driver to increasing economic opportunity and quality of life for communities that have previously relied on manufacturing for good-paying jobs. It is important to note, however, that to supply the workforce for these industries we must close the education gap that separates so many from opportunity. With 2-year programs and short-term certifications in Career Technical Education, institutions such as Heartland Community College play an important role in providing the most important part of the advanced manufacturing supply chain: an educated workforce. 

References:

¹Community College Research Center. (2021). Community college FAQs.  https://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html

²Yuen, V. (2020, October 7) The $78 billion community college funding shortfall. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/article/78-billion-community-college-funding-shortfall/

³Advanced Energy Economy (AEE). (2021). Building an electric transportation supply chain in the United States: Companies, jobs, growth rates, and economic opportunities in vehicle electrification. https://info.aee.net/hubfs/AEE%20National%20ET%20Report-1.pdf

⁴Motavalli, J. (2021, April 30). Phasing out internal combustion engines? It’s already happening. Autoweek https://www.autoweek.com/news/a36292118/phasing-out-internal-combustion-engines/

**All photos utilized in this article are provided by Heartland Community College.

About the Author:

Curt Rendall is the Executive Director, Work Ready Program Development and Innovation at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois where he works with industry partners, community organizations, and colleagues to develop and expand programming aligned to high-wage, high-skill, in-demand careers. During his time at Heartland, he has helped secure $8.1 million in funding to drive innovation in Career Technical Education through flexible programming and embedded, wrap-around student supports centered on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Notably, Heartland was recently awarded a $7.5 million capital investment to establish an Electric Vehicle – Energy Storage (EVES) Manufacturing Training Academy, which will provide hundreds of Illinois residents the opportunity to develop specialized skills in clean energy and advanced manufacturing. Curt holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA and a Doctorate in Community College Leadership from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan.

About Heartland Community College: 

Heartland Community College is a public institution serving a geographic corridor in Central Illinois that includes Bloomington-Normal, Pontiac, and Lincoln.  The College is a two-year fully accredited institution of higher education serving a population of approximately 230,000 individuals. Heartland has an enrollment of approximately 4,500 credit students annually.  In August of 2021 Heartland launched the Electric Vehicle-Energy Storage Manufacturing Training Academy.

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