May a greener future begin in a greener classroom?

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A number of speakers at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference this week in Washington, D.C. raised concerns that inadequate academic preparation in basic math, science, and reading skills are presenting major barriers in preparing workers for jobs in a clean energy economy.

Given the subject of the conference, a significant focus on jobs, energy, and economic growth was to be expected. But a specific and reoccurring focus on education (not just training) felt particularly significant as this too-often overlooked element represents a critical component to the entire jobs, development, and recovery (green or otherwise) equation.

Dean Allen, chief executive of innovative construction giant McKinstry, lamented that increasingly his company has had to turn away young motivated workers due to poor performance in math and science entrance exams. Representatives from several community colleges also reiterated the complexity of challenges they are facing in training workers with limited education for careers in next generation technologies.

Highlighting the interconnections among education, job creation, national competitiveness, and energy, Allen proposed a linking strategy: green schools.

Consider the statistics: Over half of U.S. schools today are at least 50 years old, and we know that buildings (not limited to schools) consume over 70% of electricity in the country. Based on McKinstry’s own experience, up to 50% of that electricity is currently wasted due to building inefficiencies. Translated into economic terms, a McKinsey & Co. report estimates that approximately $130 billion worth of energy is lost each year.

So building retrofits make a lot of sense, and according to Allen, school retrofits in particular are among the most important places to get started. In addition to the almost countless benefits of green buildings, bringing energy and design technology directly into the classroom provide an unparalleled educational opportunity while also creating jobs and saving energy. To maximize the value of a green school approach Allen advocates two principles: 1. students, teachers, and maintenance workers are to be actively involved throughout the “greening” process, and 2. financial savings realized from reduced utility bills go directly back into the classroom to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs.

Though perhaps not a job training panacea, green schools represent one more strategy to reduce energy use and spur demand for green jobs while also exposing future generations to careers in green industries. The U.S. Green Building Council has been a leader in this movement and offers tools and resources for cities to get started, including the Mayor’s Alliance for Green Schools.