Northwest Arkansas Lands Green Jobs Training Center

— The next crop of energy auditors or energy-efficient heating and air-conditioning specialists could come from Northwest Arkansas.

Gov. Mike Beebe announced the launch of two green-job training centers in the state Friday. One will be based at NorthWest Arkansas Community College and the other at Pulaski Technical College’s North Little Rock campus. The two programs will be funded for the next three years with more than $2.5 million in federal grants.

No official start date has been set, but officials say they’d like to get the program off the ground in June.

In Northwest Arkansas, the job-training program will be based in Bentonville with some coursework in Fayetteville, said Becky Paneitz, NWACC president of the community college, speaking after a news conference in North Little Rock where Beebe made the announcement.

NWACC’s corporate learning center in north Fayetteville at the corner of Joyce Boulevard and College Avenue will house the classroom portion of the training program, while “lab-type work” will happen at the school’s main campus in Bentonville, said Beau Walker, interim director of public relations at NWACC.

“This is good not just for the city of Fayetteville, but the whole region,” said Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan. Jordan traveled to Little Rock to attend Beebe’s news conference.

“I really believe that between the two schools, we’ll be able to open a new job market for the whole state,” Jordan said.

Establishing a green job training center in Northwest Arkansas was a prominent plank in Jordan’s bid for Fayetteville mayor in 2008.

“Today teaches you that if you stay after something long enough and stay after it, it will come to pass,” Jordan said.

He was joined at Friday’s announcement by Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce; Sarah Lewis, Fayetteville City Council member; and state Rep. Lindsley Smith (D-Fayetteville), who is also employed as Jordan’s communications director for Fayetteville. A host of officials from NWACC also attended the event.

Rick Mayes, director of building sciences at NWACC, will serve as director for the program. A program coordinator will begin work in mid-March, Walker said. The program coordinator will work to certify the new program with nationally known organizations such as the Building Performance Institute, the Residential Energy Services Network, Air-Conditioning Contractors of America and the Florida Solar Institute.

“This project is really geared toward weatherization for the state of Arkansas,” Paneitz said.

“One of the many goals for the Center of Excellence is to help bring lacking standardization to the state of Arkansas by training an educated, qualified workforce,” Walker added.

“It’s extremely important to the economic development for this region,” Paneitz added.

The coursework is being designed so that most professional certification training will take several days to several weeks depending on how the classes are scheduled. It’s not yet clear how much the classes will cost.

The state has said it wants to offer a minimum of 60 courses in the next three years, training at least 600 workers. The U.S. Department of Energy issued a $7.4 million grant to pay for the program. NWACC was awarded $1,356,088 and Pulaski Tech was awarded $1,231,202. The grants, which are part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will be administered by the Arkansas Energy Office, a division of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Roughly $4.9 million will be used by NWACC and Pulaski Tech to develop mobile training units that will visit the state’s other community colleges to provide the training.

Beebe said the money will allow the schools to “be able to train folks for the jobs of tomorrow, not the jobs of yesterday, the jobs of tomorrow.”

“(The program) marries environmental protection with economic development and it creates jobs for folks that will be long-lasting for the foreseeable future,” the governor said.

Organizers say they hope to identify more funding sources for future classes.

“The Centers of Excellence are charged with making this initiative sustainable and we anticipate other correlating funding will be designated to implement additional projects related to alternative energy such as wind, solar and geothermal,” Mayes said .

Initially, the training will include licensing and certifying professionals already working in these job sectors, say NWACC officials.

Local job watchers are praising the announcement.

“One of the great things about NWACC’s new offerings is that they will be shaped by the needs of our community,” said Keaton Smith, who leads Jordan’s Fayetteville Forward green economy group. “Programming will be fluid to meet consumer demand for new innovations and trends in the marketplace.”

“It is another key step in building a science, business and technology cluster,” said Steve Rust, president and CEO of Green Valley Development in Fayetteville. Green Valley Development is an economic development group charged with attracting and growing companies in the green-tech job sector.

More training in the green building sector will assist a growing move to build more energy-efficient buildings, said Karen Stewart, an environmental consultant with EcoPotential, a Springdale firm that offers training and consulting for environmental building certification in areas like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, also know as LEED.

“They go hand in hand,” Stewart said, pointing to a November 2009 report by the Green Building Council that shows green building will support 7.9 million jobs nationwide and pump $554 billion into the American economy — including $396 billion in wages — over the next four years.

“So this is really what needs to happen in Northwest Arkansas,” Stewart said.

Labor leaders say the training centers will be a boost for jobs.

“Even in Northwest Arkansas we’re running 7 percent unemployment, and this is the first step to get this set up to get the certification people need and I think, put more people in the workforce,” said Stephen Smith, president of the Arkansas Labor Council, which worked closely with officials in Fayetteville, the University of Arkansas, NWACC and others to secure the training center.

“We can then move on for more cooperation for more advanced job training in areas like solar and wind energy,” Smith added.

The Arkansas News Bureau’s Jeremy Peppas contributed to this report.