Ethanol Education: A Window to Employment

Like most businesses, ethanol companies employ a variety of white-collar professionals. However, ethanol plants also need skilled workers who possess knowledge of ethanol-specific process technologies and plant operations. To fill this niche, an increasing number of community colleges have begun to offer biofuels-specific training programs.
By Erin Voegele | December 09, 2009
A primary goal of most community colleges is to provide students with a discrete set of skills that can be used to secure employment. "As a two-year college, we obviously are not a research institute; we are not trying to develop new processes or research cellulosic ethanol production," says Duane Carrow, director of renewable energy programs at Minnesota West Community & Technical College. "What we focus on is the application of research, and we can adapt very quickly."

Minnesota West began to offer an ethanol-specific training program in 2000. According to Carrow, the program began as an initiative of the Minnesota Coalition for Ethanol. The coalition approached the college and expressed a need for employees who had the proper skills sets for work in an ethanol plant.

"To the best of my knowledge, it was the first program in the nation to focus on ethanol production," Carrow says. "To develop this program, we worked very closely with industry to identify the skill sets that they needed for good employees [and] in particular, production employees. That is what we focus on—training operators."

The biofuels technology program at Minnesota West in Granite Falls, Minn., focuses exclusively on ethanol and biodiesel production processes, with emphasis biology, chemistry and process control. This includes training related to the mechanical fundamentals of operating plant equipment, as well as operating mechanical equipment in a distributed control system.

Minnesota West recently installed an ethanol plant simulator which allows students to essentially run a virtual ethanol plant from the classroom. As part of the simulation program, Carrow says the instructor is able to introduce process disturbances into plant operations, allowing students to practice plant operations without endangering personnel or damaging equipment. "The simulator seems to be a very effective capstone course for students who have learned all about the ethanol process," he says. In addition to training students, Minnesota West is using the simulator to assist ethanol plants in cross-training and to expand the skill sets of their current employees.

Beginning in 2009, Minnesota West also began offering an Energy Technical Specialist program. Although the program offers students a broader range of skills that can be transferred to a wide variety of energy industries, it includes some training specific to biofuels production. The program is also being offered at eight other community colleges within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
In North Dakota, Bismarck State College has offered a Process Plant Technology program since the early 1980s, which has been expanded in recent years to provide biofuels-specific training. "We took our process program and tweaked it, added to it and modified it to include curriculum that focuses on ethanol and biofuels," says Dan Schmidt, a program manager at BSC's National Energy Center for Excellence. "The curriculum is designed to expose students to the equipment, the process flows and systems, safety issues and operator duties that an energy-level operator would be responsible for when they get hired at a plant."

In addition to its two-year associate-level program, BSC began offering a four-year bachelor's degree program in energy management in 2008. According to Schmidt, the bachelors program is an opportunity for graduates from a two-year technical program to expand their skills in order to qualify for a promotion into a management or supervisor role at their company. Because it is aimed at prospective students already in the workforce, the bachelor's degree program is offered exclusively online.

Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota offers two programs that prepare students for employment in the ethanol industry. While neither program focuses solely on biofuels production, each program includes biofuels-specific coursework.

According to Roger Solum, department head and instructor for LATI's Energy Operations program, LATI added biofuels training to its course offering after recognizing that local ethanol plants were in need of properly trained employees. "We're here basically because the industry asked us to be here," he says.

Northeast Community College in Nebraska recently began to offer a biofuels program as well. In 2007, the college implemented a Renewable Fuels Technology program. "The degree covers pretty much all of the ethanol fundamentals that new prospective hires would need at a typical dry mill ethanol plant," says program instructor Randall Sigle. This includes basics such as math and biology, as well as safety requirements, piping and instrumentation, diagrams, reading blueprints and ethanol process fundamentals. The program also employs a computer simulation model that mirrors the operation of an ethanol plant, allowing students to gain more hands-on experience in plant operations.

According to Sigle, NECC's Renewable Fuels Technology program was funded with a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition to offering courses for credit on campus, the college offers continuing education to ethanol plant employees through on-site training seminars. Last summer, approximately 500 plant employees participated in the seminars.

Although many programs focus on large-scale industrial plant operations, some biofuels training programs are geared toward smaller-scale production. At Central Carolina Community College in North Carolina, the Alternative Energy Technology program, launched in 2008, specializes in training on small-scale on-farm production. The program also currently places more focus on biodiesel production because no commercial-scale ethanol plants current exist within the state.

Similarly, the Energy Technology program at Miles Community College in Montana places a greater emphasis on agricultural issues than many Midwestern programs. "We are in a really rural farming-type community," says Kristin Buck, MCC's science technology instructor. "So, we have a little more agricultural involvement than some of the other schools that focus more on process control."

MCC's program was also funded through a government grant, and is currently in its first year. Although the program includes curriculum related to both ethanol and biodiesel production, Buck says the program currently focuses more on biodiesel, only because no commercial-scale ethanol plants are located near the college.

Student Enrollment and Placement
Enrollment patterns in ethanol training programs seem to mirror the state of the industry. "The challenges in ethanol education pretty much follow the challenges, or peaks and valleys that are subject to the industry," Sigle says. "In 2007, it was very easy to recruit students because new plants were being built. By 2008, it became a little bit more difficult to recruit students. The ethanol industry has followed a wave-like fluctuation, and it has affected the ethanol training program the same way."

Carrow agrees that enrollment seems to ebb and flow with the state of the industry, but also notes that he has seen increased interest from nontraditional students who have been displaced by the recession. This includes current ethanol plant employees who want to upgrade their skills as well as displaced workers who are looking to change career paths.

According to Schmidt, BSC has seen a 30 percent increase in enrollment in its program since 2007. "We have experienced a lot of growth in all of our programs over the past couple of years," he says, adding that much of the growth has been via online enrollment.

Solum says the programs offered by LATI are filled and that each class primarily consists of traditional students. "We have a handful of nontraditional students as well that may have been displaced in some other market with the slowdown in employment in manufacturing."

Although a number of biofuels programs are relatively new and have yet to graduate a significant number of students, programs that have graduated students report placement rates of more than 90 percent. In general, all graduates who have sought employment at an ethanol plant have been able to find work.

Evolving for Cellulosic
Advisory boards play a large role in shaping the curriculum at community colleges. These boards are made up of local industry representatives that work with faculty members to ensure that students receive the most up-to-date training possible. As the ethanol industry moves to second- and third-generation production technologies, these boards are expected to be an integral force driving innovation in the programs.

Sigle says community colleges such as NECC excel at keeping up with current industry trends, and says advisory boards play a large role in helping to guide areas of study. "We get feedback from the industry on what their needs are, what the newest opportunities are, and what the new promising technologies will be," he says. "We put a great deal of effort into trying to stay well-informed about new technologies and new opportunities—where the industry is headed as well as the challenges within the industry."

"Part of our job is to identify the new technology needs and then modify our curriculum to meet new technology, because our students need to be prepared for new concepts all the time," Solum says. "We have a very fluid curriculum that we are allowed to massage and mold as the industry requires us to."

According to Sigle, alterations have continually been made to NECC's biofuels program as technology changes. He says this is not only true of big changes, such as the move to cellulosic, but also smaller technology changes, such as the deployment of fractionation technologies. "Sometimes it's not just about large separations in technology…sometimes it's about optimizing and tweaking an existing process and adding value to what plants are currently doing."

"It's important that we continue to recruit and train people for the ethanol industry," Sigle says. "My personal belief is that the ethanol industry will continue to grow and be a dynamic industry."

"Even though there might be a lot of negative publicity about ethanol, most of the facilities are now running again," Carrow says. "Obviously those facilities need employees. Those jobs are still there and the industry needs people. There might not be new facilities being constructed right now, but hopefully we will see another surge in facility construction as cellulosic ethanol becomes more viable." EP

Erin Voegele is an Ethanol Producer Magazine associate editor. Reach her at evoegele@bbiinternational.com or (701) 373-8040.