What Comes First?

In the past five years ethanol plants have popped up across the countryside, but the vast number of employees required to run those plants has not materialized as quickly. That has led renewable energy companies, ethanol plants, technical colleges and universities to collaborate and provide the much-needed training of tomorrow's ethanol producers.
By Hope Deutscher | June 02, 2008
With nearly 200 ethanol production plants dotting the U.S. landscape, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council estimates the industry has created almost 238,541 jobs in all sectors of the economy—more than 46,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector.

EPIC also projects the increase in gross output resulting from the ongoing production of a 50 MMgy ethanol plant supports the creation of more than 800 jobs in all sectors of a local economy; a 100 MMgy plant will generate almost 1,600 new jobs. It is estimated that by 2022 more than 1.1 million jobs could be created as a result of the ongoing production of ethanol and the construction of new capacity.

In the past five years, the ethanol industry has doubled its annual production capacity, and production demands will top 36 billion gallons by 2022 to meet federal standards.
All across the country, skilled individuals are considered to be the key to the continued success of the ethanol industry, prompting plant managers, renewable fuels companies and educational institutions to work together to train and educate the leaders of tomorrow's ethanol plants.

Nebraska Training Program
Nebraska ranks second in ethanol production nationally, and is the largest ethanol producer west of the Missouri River. Twenty-two ethanol plants provide more than $1.4 billion in capital investment in the state and employ approximately 1,000 Nebraskans.

In 2005, no formal ethanol training programs existed in Nebraska, which isn't surprising, as the entire industry was experiencing a major shortage of trained, qualified technicians.

To remedy the situation, the Nebraska Ethanol Board requested assistance from the community college system to develop a statewide training curriculum and program. In 2006, Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Neb., and its partners received a grant for about $2 million from the U.S. Department of Labor under the president's Community-Based Job Training Grants Initiative. NECC and its partners are using the funds to develop an ethanol production and management degree program, and short-term training programs.

NECC and the Applied Information Management Institute authored the grant application on behalf of Central, Metropolitan, Mid-Plains, Southeast, and Western Nebraska community colleges. Other partner organizations include Nebraska Workforce Development, nine ethanol production companies, six ethanol associations, and statewide educational institutions and governing organizations.

The organizers of the Nebraska Renewable Fuels Training program decided early on they wanted to have a statewide training program. "We have one similar program so that people throughout the state of Nebraska are trained the same way for the needs of the ethanol industry," says Chuck Pohlman, project director for the Nebraska Renewable Fuels Training program and dean of agriculture, health and sciences at NECC.

In July 2007, the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education unanimously approved NECC's proposal for an associate of applied science degree in renewable fuels. "We started the associate degree last fall and we just got our certificate program approved," Pohlman says. "Within a year the certificate program will be online. We will start with some online this summer and we will also have a land-based program on campus."

NECC offers a two-year degree in renewable fuels technology; in addition, beginning this fall, all of the six community colleges will offer a 17-credit certificate program in renewable fuels technology. The program is specifically designed for students who want to upgrade or obtain new skills to work in the ethanol industry. The 17-hour certificate program includes courses in ethanol process fundamentals, mechanical fundamentals (pumps), piping and instrumentation diagrams, fundamentals of electricity for renewable fuels, process dynamics, microbial ecology, and instrumentation and control.

If a student wants to obtain an associate's degree, completed coursework within the certificate program will apply to the two-year associate of applied science degree in renewable fuels technology, Pohlman says. "In our two-year program we want to have someone who, when they are done, basically has a little bit of everything as far as the ethanol industry—some electromechanical, safety, the science part of the lab, maintenance," he says. "There's something in there that should make for a really good shift supervisor when they are done."

The training partners envision the associate of applied science degree in renewable fuels technology will lead to select bachelor's degrees at local four-year colleges. "There's an opportunity to have a two-plus-two with these four-year colleges and have [students] more on the level of either plant engineers or the head lab person who has a bachelor's degree in chemistry so that they can help train and work with the people who have two-year degrees," Pohlman says.

An annual Ethanol Production and Management Symposium is slated to begin during the third year of the grant. Also envisioned are dual-credit and ethanol career exploration opportunities for high school students and training activities integrating student support services provided by the community colleges and the local career center.

According to the Nebraska Renewable Fuels Training Web site (www.ethanoltraining.org), ethanol plants across the state have a wide variety of jobs, with salaries ranging from $25,000 to $100,000, that are open and in need of trained workers—or individuals willing to be trained.

From high-school educated students to individuals beginning a second career path, Pohlman says, the specialized training provides many benefits—from hands-on experience to an internship at a local ethanol plant.

Through the use of a simulator, the college will provide students with the experience of operating an ethanol plant. "We can have 18 students at one time in a room working on six different ethanol plants and it's exactly what you see on the monitor screens in [ethanol plant] control rooms and what's happening during cooking, fermentation, and distillation.

We can screw things up, like having the temperature too high on the fermentation, and they have to troubleshoot. That's something they won't get if they take traditional college courses. We are going to have the equipment and the facilities to be able to give them hands-on experience."

Pohlman says there was so much interest in the program, recruiting wasn't necessary for the first class of 14 students currently enrolled in the two-year associate degree program at NECC.

"I started last fall with great anticipation for the ethanol program, and it is as good as I had hoped," says Shane Manchester a student from Dunkerton, Iowa, who was quoted in a press release about the program. "After just one semester, I could walk through an ethanol plant and understand just about everything that is happening throughout the whole ethanol process."

Educators realize there will be ebbs and flows in class size—but Pohlman says there is a lot support for the college biofuels training programs throughout rural Nebraska where ethanol plants greatly add to the local economy.

Central Carolina Gets Biofuels Grant
The Biofuels Center of North Carolina recently awarded a $195,000 grant to Central Carolina Community College's Biofuels Program. The funds will be used to purchase equipment for the college's Biofuels Production Laboratory at its Chatham County Campus in Pittsboro, N.C.

Andrew McMahan, coordinator and curriculum developer for Central Carolina's Biofuels Program, says the grant money will be used to customize the training program to meet industry needs. "We'll have biofuels training resources that will be more comprehensive than those at any university in the state. The college is at the cutting edge on biofuels and we're positioned to be state leaders in workforce development for this emerging industry."

Since 2001, Central Carolina has offered biofuels training through its Continuing Education Department. The college also plans to offer an associate in applied sciences degree in alternative fuels. "In our biofuels program, we are training students for the biofuels industry we have in North Carolina today, which is biodiesel," McMahan says. "We are also looking forward to the day when we are able to turn any cellulosic material, such as wood chips and sweet potatoes, into fuels."

A Sustainable Technology Building, which will house the sustainable biofuels, sustainable agriculture, and green building programs, is being constructed on the Chatham campus.

The Biofuels Center of North Carolina, located in Oxford, was established in 2007 with a $5 million appropriation by the state's General Assembly. The center focuses on implementing the state's Strategic Plan for Biofuels Leadership, and facilitates and supports the development of a sustainable biofuels industry in North Carolina.

Iowa's Training Program
Iowa is the leading ethanol producer in the United States, and it continues to grow. According to the training needs assessment of 10 ethanol plants conducted by Ruth Consulting Group, if the state wants to retain this position and attract new ethanol plants, Iowa must be able to provide a suitable workforce. From producers to educators and students, training is the key to providing and maintaining the workforce of the biofuels industries.

Iowa Biofuels Training International is a nonprofit organization providing a one-stop resource and training center for the industry. Through a network of community colleges, four-year institutions and experts, IBTI coordinates and provides comprehensive training programs for full-time ethanol and biodiesel laboratory, maintenance and operations positions. The organization also will match educational institutions and biofuels producers with potential workers.

Renewable Energy Group Inc. of Ames, Iowa, which manages, operates and markets biodiesel plants, developed the biodiesel training curriculum for IBTI. Alicia Clancy, spokeswoman for REG, says the company had to train employees for its wholly owned 12 MMgy Ralston, Iowa, facility. "We started training employees at that facility in 1996—how to make biodiesel, how to maintain it, the electrical system, safety training and that sort of thing," Clancy says. REG now owns or manages a network of seven commercial-scale biodiesel production facilities. "At a 30 MMgy year facility, you are talking about approximately 30 employees per plant—so that's quite a few employees that the Renewable Energy Group has trained throughout the years," Clancy says. "Several hundred employees have gone through the Renewable Energy Group training process. The folks at Iowa Biofuels Training International came to us and said we'd like to put together a curriculum so that we can offer biodiesel training in Iowa and throughout the United States—they have even had folks from Europe visit to learn about specific pieces of the renewable fuels industry."

Clancy says REG's own on-site training is more specific to its technologies and processes, but IBTI provides the necessary education to get someone started in the industry. "It's hard right now to find people who have prior experience in the biodiesel industry," Clancy says. "When we hire employees, and when the network plants hire employees, they are looking for people who have some mechanical background, are comfortable with computers, willing to learn and want to know about renewable fuels. Then we have to take them
through training."

As in Nebraska, Clancy says students attending programs through IBTI are usually second-career individuals interested in getting into the renewable fuels industry. "As we grow we're going to need employees who have experience and any sort of training that they can have before they come on board helps to expedite their training process and get them into the biodiesel industry more quickly," she says.

For more information on Iowa Biofuels Training International, visit www.biofuelstraining.org; for more information on Nebraska Renewable Fuels Training program visit www.ethanoltraining.org.

Hope Deutscher is the Ethanol Producer Magazine online editor. Reach her at hdeutscher@bbibiofuels.com or (701) 373-0636.