Tech Schools’ Green Push Raises Questions

September 30, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIt’s been 50 years since the groundwork for the S.C. Technical College System was laid. Its goal today, as in 1961, remains the same: to provide training for South Carolinians and to serve as an economic-development tool by ensuring a ready work force for industries that want to do business in the state.

The offspring of a 1960 study committee created by then-Gov. Fritz Hollings and featuring such political luminaries as future Govs. Robert McNair and John West, and future U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence, the tech system has gone on to train workers for such corporate behemoths as BMW, Boeing, Caterpillar and Michelin.

No less an authority on the Palmetto State than University of South Carolina history professor Walter Edgar called the system “innovative,” and added that it attracted “national attention and regional imitations,” in his 1998 book South Carolina: A History.

Yet, there is increasing concern that at least some South Carolina tech schools are straying from their original mission and some initiatives are negatively impacting private businesses.

Mike Murphree, manager and a partner with Summerville-based 2nd South Properties and Construction, said business is difficult enough at present without government funds being expended to train individuals who end up working for competitors.

“It’s frustrating in the sense that I’m competing with my own tax money,” said Murphree, referring to a program called “Career Pathways for a Green South,” designed to create a “green technology” workforce and being implemented at Trident Technical College in North Charleston.

Murphree isn’t the only one who has issues with technical schools jumping on the “green jobs” bandwagon, or taxpayer-funded training for green jobs.

Nationwide, hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, if not more, has been spent over the past few years to train individuals for careers in green technology, despite the fact that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t even have a precise definition of what constitutes a green job.

Beyond that, there’s been a great deal of disagreement on just how much potential the green economy has for South Carolina and the nation as a whole.

In North Myrtle Beach, a public-private entity called the North Strand Coastal Wind Team is making Utopian promises that might appear difficult to back up.

“Jobs in manufacturing and energy production that promote energy efficiency and ensure environmental sustainability will continue to grow in South Carolina,” the organization said in a newsletter last year. “In addition, renewable energy production is predicted to produce high growth, high wage, and high demand jobs in the state.”

But critics contend that green job-creation programs are often nothing more than economic black holes.

“Green jobs are temporary jobs at enormous per-job cost, with other economic fallout from the opportunity cost and the impact of the wealth transfer on a state or nation’s attractiveness to potential employers,” Christopher Horner, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, told The Nerve. “If not checked, ‘green jobs’ means pink slips, red ink, and dark times.”

Stimulus-Based Program

The money for Career Pathways for a Green South came from Chapel Hill, N.C.-based non-profit MDC, which was awarded a $3.8 million grant last year from the U.S. Department of Labor as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus program.

The grant was part of $150 million allocated “to support programs that help low-income and disadvantaged populations attain economic self-sufficiency through good jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries,” according to an MDC press release.

MDC implemented the program through four community colleges, including two in South Carolina: Trident Tech and Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College in Orangeburg. The two Palmetto State schools were the key recipients of nearly $1.5 million bestowed in the state, with a large chunk of that going to train individuals in how to weatherize homes.

Trident Tech and the Sustainability Institute of South Carolina were allocated $762,327 over two years, according to Amanda Hollinger, director of sponsored projects for Trident Tech. Of that, $96,000 went to the Sustainability Institute and the remainder to Trident Tech, Hollinger said.

The Sustainability Institute. a non-profit, lists its mission, according to information filed with the Internal Revenue Service, as, “Empowering South Carolinians to reduce our environmental footprint where we live and work.”

Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech was allocated $709,600 to train individuals for green technology jobs, according to information posted on the school’s website.

Officials with Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College declined to respond to interview requests from The Nerve for this story.

Training at Trident Tech began last July and will run through the end of this year, according to Tim Fulford, energy training manager at Trident Tech. The goal of successfully certifying at least 150 individuals has already been reached, he added.

Currently, about 70 percent of graduates have landed full-time ongoing jobs, with pay ranging between $10 and $20 an hour, Fulford said.

Many of the contractors hiring graduates from Trident Tech’s program are doing work for companies such as SCE&G and Santee Cooper, Fulford said.

Those same contractors are competing with Murphree and 2nd South Properties and Construction, which employs between eight and 10 workers.

Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech apparently isn’t stopping at simply training people to weatherize homes. It now offers a “Green Jobs Scholars Program,” with areas of study listed as: “efficiency,” “environmental” and “renewable.”

Also, O-C Tech is serving as “an aggregating, central point” in the Palmetto Wind Research Project, a project that also involves state-owned utility Santee Cooper, the S.C. Energy Office and Coastal Carolina University, and was launched in 2009 to study the possibilities of generating wind energy off the coast.

According to a summer 2010 “progress report” from the North Strand Coastal Wind Team, wind data from the coast is transmitted to Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech for use in their green education program.

Over the past few years, nearly $2.5 million in state and federal dollars has been spent in South Carolina alone to explore the feasibility of offshore wind energy, according to information provided by state agencies.

Nationwide Imitative

President Barack Obama made a point of promoting “green jobs” in 2008 as a major component of his strategy to lift the United States out of its worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Obama promised that America would create 5 million green jobs within 10 years.

But according to a staff report released Sept. 22 by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to the extent that any “green jobs” have been created, it has only been accomplished by shifting resources that might have generated more productive jobs elsewhere in the economy.

“Many European countries have learned the hard way that propping up ‘green energy’ industries comes at the expense of private sector growth and job creation, and we would be wise to learn from their mistakes,” the report cautioned.

Indeed, more than one European country has already discovered that government-driven attempts to create a green economy have proven disastrous.

In 2009, Spanish professor Gabriel Calzada Alvarez of Juan Carlos University in Madrid produced a 41-page study that showed that for every green job created by the Spanish government, 2.2 jobs were destroyed elsewhere in the economy because resources were directed politically and not rationally, as in a market economy, according to Investor’s Business Daily.

A report by the Spanish government later confirmed his findings.

Italian researchers Carlo Stagnaro and Luciano Lavecchia found that in Italy the losses were even worse: Each green job cost 6.9 jobs in the industrial sector and 4.8 jobs across the entire economy.

“Green investments are an ineffective policy for job creation,” they said in their report. Despite the other merits of investments in new energy, “to the extent that the ‘green deal’ is aimed at creating employment or purported as anti-crisis or stimulus policy, it is a wrong policy choice.”

The United Kingdom, Germany and Denmark have also discovered that the push for green jobs doesn’t come without costs for consumers, and that no amount of tax dollars can turn economically unfeasible concepts into profitable stand-alone ventures.

According to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s recent report, “MIT professors Thomas H. Lee, Ben Ball, Jr., and Richard Tabors have noted that with regard to government investment in energy, ‘the experience of the 1970s and 1980s taught us that if a technology is commercially viable, then government support is not needed, and if a technology is not commercially viable, no amount of government support will make it so.’”

In sum, the committee report stated: “governments across the world have committed to public policy follies that defy economic common sense by burdening citizens with higher energy costs and displacing and destroying jobs. The way green jobs policies have worked in practice is analogous to a policy that would tear down two neighboring homes to build one inferior house on an empty lot. No one is better off but the government is able to point to the one house it built while ignoring the other two it tore down.”

Yet, despite significant evidence to the contrary, the green push remains an essential focus for many such as the North Strand Coastal Wind Team, a public-private initiative whose members include the city of North Myrtle Beach, the North Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce, Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech, the S.C. Energy Office, Coastal Carolina University, Clemson University and the Savannah River National Lab.

The North Strand Coastal Wind Team received a $176,000 grant from the state of South Carolina to purchase and install up to seven small wind turbines in oceanfront locations within North Myrtle Beach.

Subsequently, the grant was modified to include Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech, which had received a grant to develop an alternative energy K-16 education program, according to a press release from the city of North Myrtle Beach.

Representatives of the organization have also traveled to Washington, D.C., the past two years to lobby for money.

While the North Strand Coastal Wind Team, Orangeburg-Calhoun Tech, Trident Tech and others charge full steam ahead toward the green jobs industry – thanks in no small part to state and federal funding – at least one public entity has decided to take a closer look at what they’re getting for the investment.

Santee Cooper, the state’s public utility, told The Nerve earlier this month it was evaluating its wind power-focus and has yet to determine how much, if any, money it will dedicate to wind research going forward.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022 ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.