The ‘Cool’ Fuel

FROM THE OCTOBER ISSUE: Multiple trade groups and ethanol companies offer internships, contests and events to get young people interested in biofuels. The next generation is drawn to ethanol's environmental and economic benefits.
By Ann Bailey | September 21, 2017

The ethanol industry is for young people who want to be one of the “cool kids,” says John Caupert, executive director of the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center in Edwardsville, Illinois. The biofuel’s “hip” factor needs to be communicated to potential employees, he says. In fact, the NCERC is in the midst of a marketing campaign to get the word out that biofuels are cool.

The recent addition of a young millenial to NCERC’s staff at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville has given Caupert a new perspective on the industry, he says. “What I’ve come to realize is the coolness of being involved in an industry that’s creating jobs, that’s good for the environment, that saves you money at the gas pump, and the list goes on and on,” he says.

Besides conducting a marketing campaign about the variety of jobs available in the ethanol industry and the positive environmental benefits of ethanol, Caupert says NCERC has a successful internship program that attracts young people. “[We have] a line of young people, the 20-something crowd, the true millennials, wanting to get involved in what we do at the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center.” Whether the candidate is a student who can work 20 hours a week, someone looking for an internship, a student seeking graduate school research work or a college graduate seeking full-time employment, NCERC has an internship available, Caupert says. The center has between four and 10 spots available all the time.   

The NCERC biofuels internships are funded through a $10 million U.S. Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant awarded in 2014. NCERC, which has a pilot plant, works with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and its Lewis and Clark Community College on the Building Illinois Bioeconomy program. “What BIB does, is it takes this four-year university that we sit on at SIUE and our research center here at NCERC and it links up the activities here with four other community colleges across our state,” says Courtney Breckenridge, BIB project manager. “The areas we focused on with the grant were bioprocess and biofuels and water management.”

Students studying for jobs in the ethanol industry who are enrolled in systems classes, for example, gain experience working on a boiler system at NCERC’s pilot plant. Then, when they’re closer to completing their degrees, they are placed in a facility where they complete a short, unpaid internship. “NCERC is kind of the glue that connects these very strong classroom programs and fundamental training,” Breckenridge says. Students are willing to do unpaid internships because they’re able to actually operate equipment, not simply job shadow or work in an office like they do in many internships, she says.

The most effective way NCERC spreads the word about its internship program is word-of-mouth, Caupert says. The interns tell others about their positive experiences. Another strong selling point is the success former interns have securing full-time jobs.

“Word-of-mouth and success speak volumes,” Caupert says. “The word is out there that this is the place (to do internships), if you want to gain hands-on experience that will lead you to a real job, real quick that pays real well.”

Because NCERC staff have the training, time, resources and experience needed to make the internship experience successful, he suggests ethanol plants or industry venders contact the center when they are seeking a certain type of employee, rather than offering an internship themselves. “We respect the fact that for venders to the ethanol industry and plants, money is tight and they don’t necessarily have the time and they may or may not have the resources to put the people through hands-on learning they need.” Ethanol plants and industry venders need capable, job-ready, qualified applicants and NCERC can supply that, Caupert says.

“If there is one kind of takeaway from these programs, it is we’re filling the jobs of today and preparing for the jobs of tomorrow,” Breckenridge says.

The Right Fit
Meanwhile, NCERC can vet potential workers and eliminate from the job pool people who might not be suited for employment in the ethanol industry, Caupert says. “The industry is not for everyone. We can weed them out, saving time and valuable resources for that commercial facility that otherwise expended some time, effort and resources on someone who is maybe going to be less than a desirable employee in the long run.”

In addition to the technical jobs, NCERC recently added intern positions in business-oriented jobs. “Up until about a year ago, our internships were very STEM- oriented (science, technology, engineering and math),” Caupert says. “They were science – so chemistry or biology, engineering, process technology. These are the folks who have a two-year degree in process technology, complete an internship here and go straight out into the industry as a process operator. This year, we expanded it. We have added interns who have had degree fields such as accounting, public relations, you name it.”

Caupert encourages ethanol plants and venders to offer internships, and strongly encourages them to take on interns with backgrounds in business and communications. “I would encourage commercial ethanol plants, venders to those ethanol plants, to look very closely at their day-to-day workloads and activities, and I bet they would discover where an intern can do a fantastic job,” Caupert says.

NCERC says interns need to learn the skills required for the job, but they also need to master soft skills, such as getting along with co-workers, deductive reasoning and critical thinking. “We spend a lot of time, a lot of research, a lot of effort on soft skills training,” Caupert says.   

NCERC also has marketing programs targeted at preschool and K-12 students, Breckenridge says. For example, the center partners with Head Start, doing activities with children and informational sessions about the biofuels industry with their parents.

Growing an Industry
The Nebraska Ethanol Board, meanwhile, works to attract young people to the ethanol industry through events such as the FFA state convention and the Nebraska State Fair, as well as appearances at the children’s zoo, says Luke Miller, NEB public information officer.

The NEB also sponsors a contest in which high school students submit a two-minute video that features an aspect of the ethanol industry. “It’s anything to do about the ethanol industry; how things are processed, or a plant in particular,” Miller says. “It’s kind of open-ended for them as long as it’s about ethanol.” Students can win a grand prize of $1,000, a second-place prize of $600 or a third-place prize of $400, he says.

Like NCERC, the NEB also offers internships to college students. Interns help promote ethanol at events and go out to middle schools and high schools to talk about ethanol.

“It’s really important to grow the industry,” Miller says. “We’re not content to let things sit as they are. We want to make sure we have a thriving industry here in the state. The most important thing we can do is to bring in new people. A lot of these ethanol plants are in rural areas that a lot of students around the state grew up in and might be interested in returning to. We want to make sure they have the right information and tools so they can do that if they want to.”

The Nebraska Corn Processors Ethanol plant in Cambridge, Nebraska, has provided young people with an opportunity to return to their hometown, says Jan tenBensal, a member of the Cambridge Economic Development Board and the Nebraska Ethanol Board. The plant employs 35, but its ripple effect has added other jobs in the town, too, he says.

“The young people are able to build their houses in town and have good paying jobs, and it’s just a win-win for us,” tenBensel says. “We’re very thankful for that plant.”

It’s important to see the benefits of ethanol through the eyes of the young people the industry is trying to attract, Caupert says.

“I think what we’ve done is, someone marketing to these young folks that by working in the ethanol industry, it truly is service. Some people choose to serve in the form of wearing a military uniform. This is another form of service. You’re serving your nation in the form of generating fuel that enhances our energy independence, cleans our environment, adds to our fiscal sustainability, lessens our dependence on foreign oil.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Freelance Journalist