Fostering the Next Generation of Biofuels Innovators

In our country’s spirited debate over energy, innovation and the economy, perhaps no phrase has been uttered more often than “green jobs.” While the precise meaning of “green job” continues to be a topic of debate, I would submit that jobs in the algae industry are indeed at least a little shade of green. Or maybe blue-green.

In today’s biofuels industry, most of the growth has centered on jobs for those workers who have already been trained in the fields of construction; engineering; chemistry and biology; sales and marketing; legal and administrative, and others. The industry now supports tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs across the country and up and down the value chain – from Ph.D-level microbiologists to plant personnel to legal counsel to metal fabricators and truckers; from the labs of San Diego to the ethanol plants of Iowa to the offices of Silicon Valley.

That is something we rightly celebrate as an industry. It also something policymakers in Washington D.C. would be wise to recognize as they continue to seek ways to create jobs and spur economic growth.

The next generation of green jobs

Much less has been said, however, about the tremendous need to develop the next generation of biofuels innovators. Regardless of technology, feedstock or business plan, this is something that is a concern of the industry as a whole. Because a new generation of experts will be required to help today’s companies continue to prosper and innovate; it will also be necessary to ensuring that tomorrow’s advanced biofuels companies have access to a highly-trained workforce. As an industry, we have the responsibility to help foster the creation of that new generation of biofuels innovators.

It’s no secret that the United States has lagged behind other countries in recent years in the field of science, engineering and math. Both the public and the private sector have gone to great lengths to try to encourage and inspire today’s youth to choose careers in these fields. I believe that the biofuels industry has the unique ability to drive today’s youth into careers into these disciplines. Why?

The sex appeal of sustainability

Today’s youth are more concerned about global sustainability than any other generation before it. Recent studies of the so-called millennials – those born from 1981 to 2000 – point to a generation that is more open to changing habits and behaviors to reduce environmental impact. They are more interested in authenticity than spin. And they are more interested in making a positive impact in the world than material gain. As The New York Times reported in a recent story on this generation’s interest in sustainability and clean technology, “Suddenly, ‘sustainability’ seems to resonate with the sex appeal of ‘dot com’ or ‘start-up,’ appealing to droves of ambitious young innovators.”

But in order for our industry to continue to attract these ambitious young innovators, we need two things. First, we must have continued federal investments in research at all levels.  Second, we need public-private partnerships between leading biofuels companies and research institutions to provide internships, bench experience and other opportunities for students at every level.  Such practical experience often converts interns to employees. Employees become advocates, experts and innovators, creating further demand for these skill sets. And when that happens, we can energize existing and next generation scientists and researchers to devote their careers to our industry.

How partnerships for education work

What might such a partnership look like? Fortunately for us, there are already some exciting examples of collaborations happening today that are creating a biofuels workforce for the future.

In San Diego, one of the country’s centers for the development of algae-to-biofuels technologies , a program called the Educating and Developing Workers for the Green Economy(EDGE) Initiative is helping to ensure that the region’s burgeoning biofuels industry has access to a highly trained, world-class workforce. Funded through the state of California and the Federal Workforce Investment Act, the training program is being developed by the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, with cleanTECH San Diego helping to integrate the program with the region’s commercial biofuels sector.  The program is training the next generation of advanced biofuels leaders, including technicians, Ph.D.-level researchers and scientists, and engineers.

I look at this opportunity through a few lenses. As the executive director of the trade association for the US algae industry, I know we must find ways to populate today’s and tomorrow’s algae companies with the best and the brightest minds our country can offer.

As a concerned citizen, I know we must find ways to develop new domestic sources of energy while preserving our existing transportation infrastructure. And last, as a parent, my hope is that my own children will not only be inspired to pursue opportunities in clean energy, but will also find plentiful options awaiting them in the future.

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Mary Rosenthal is the Executive Director of the Algal Biomass Organization, the leading trade organization for the algae industry.

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