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Affiliate Spotlight – Clay Sterling, Kankakee Community College

Describe your role at Kankakee Community College and where you see the greatest need or opportunity for the college and your students.


I have recently accepted a position at Kankakee Community College (KCC) as an instructor in the electrical technology program to train students in renewable energy technology. KCC offers a 2-year Electrical Technology AAS with a Renewable Energy focus track and three renewable energy certificate options. The program features hands-on labs with real-world hardware and a local installation project at the end of each semester, either at KCC or in the Kankakee area. The main goal of the program is to prepare students to work safely and smartly in growing renewable energy fields.

KCC’s renewable energy training program has had such huge success, that it has gained national recognition by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) as the 2014 IREC Accredited Clean Energy Training Provider of the Year. IREC is a nationally recognized thought leader, stakeholder coordinator, expert resource and facilitator of regulatory reform. Their work expands consumer access to clean energy; generates information and objective analysis grounded in best practices and standards; and leads national efforts to build a quality-trained clean energy workforce, including a unique credentialing program for training programs and instructors.

Thanks to the program’s success, students are being directly hired locally while they are still in the classroom. Currently one student is a newly minted wind farm technician and the second is working on solar electric installations. Both are working in the field during the day and attending class at night. I think that speaks volumes to the program.

How did you choose a career in renewable energy?

I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. I have a background as a commercial electrician. After attending college, I fell in with the right group which eventually took me to Midwest renewable Energy Association (MREA), a renewable energy educational non-profit whose vision is to provide the highest quality education in response to emerging energy issues in the Midwest.

At the same time, I moved into a home that was 100% off-grid. I supplied all my electrical needs from a small solar array. Eventually, I upgraded and expanded the size of the solar array and added solar water heating as well. It was a natural progression from electrician to into renewables.

How have your past experiences prepared you for a position at an Illinois community college?

As the prior MREA Education Director and Regional Training Officer, I have had the opportunity to play a significant role in the development and expansion of renewable energy training curriculum and programs throughout the Midwest. I learned fast that a successful training program is built upon the needs of students, local industry, and supportive administration. Based on the needs of each these entities over the last 16 years, my colleagues and I have built nationally recognized renewable energy training courses and programs and have been able to adapt these courses to an ever changing industry.

My prior 16 years teaching experience has recently led me to peruse a M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction to expand my curriculum development expertise to better serve my students. I am currently a certified Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) PV and Wind Instructor since 2003 and 2010 respectively. In addition to teaching across the Midwest for the MREA, I worked as an instructor for an outdoor learning center.

As a result of my experience in the field along with teaching in the industry, in 2013 I was awarded the IREC 3i Clean Energy Trainer of the Year and am now an auditor for IREC. Life-long learning is a part of my personal philosophy of instruction in order to deliver the most current updates on the technology and trends in the industry to the students.

Describe a successful initiative or program that you helped implement.

When I worked for the MREA, I repackaged the traditional class offerings and repackaged them into an all-inclusive offering now called the “Solar Training Academy“. The student pays tuition; the organization supplies the rest. The Solar Training Academy is a sixty-three-hour training that walks the student through the solar electric training materials from beginning to end, one weekend per month during the winter. The training format was wildly successful and is now offered in four states with many students directly entering the workforce out of the academy.

What do you see as short and long term goals for a clean energy transition in Illinois and the impacts this can have on green jobs for our students entering the workforce?

Energy and our energy-related choices have a huge impact on our physical environment. The International Energy Agency predicts that the total world energy consumption will rise by 37% by the year 2040. Wind energy offers many advantages and is one of the fastest-growing energy sources in Illinois. Wind power helps to keep economies competitive and air clean for generations to come, while also growing the clean energy workforce.

2015 marked the third consecutive year in which solar employment growth was at 20 percent. The U.S. solar industry is creating jobs at a rate 12 times higher than employment growth in the overall economy. Since 2010, The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Job’s Census has found that solar employment has grown by 123%, representing an increase of 115,000 well-paying solar jobs. Over the next 12 months this census found that solar companies are expect to add a total of 30,000 new solar workers in the US, representing 14.7% employment growth over 2015.

In the short term, it will be necessary to build a market for the technology and at the same time train quality workers to install renewable energy systems. The long term goal would be to have enough demand for training to warrant expansion of our courses and curriculum. I think I have seen plenty of evidence, in my brief time here at KCC, to know that demand for trained renewable energy students is growing in the state of Illinois.

Any suggestions, tips, or words of wisdom to share with the network?

You have to do something, anything, to move forward.