Expanding the Bioenergy Workforce

Skilled, professional, and motivated technicians and operators are in demand for first-generation, advanced biofuel and cogeneration plants, and other bioenergy facilities.
By Betsy Fradd | May 17, 2016

Chris Madsen needed a career change. After owning and operating his own construction business for over 20 years, a hand injury propelled him to look in other directions. At 45, the father of two enrolled in the plant operations program at Walla Walla Community College. “An area that is focused on heavily [in the program] is the chemical process we use in order to utilize bioenergy,” says Madsen, who also completed a summer internship at biorefinery developer ZeaChem, an industry partner of the Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest project.

Madsen and others are part of a growing number of students recognizing the value of instruction and hands-on experience to meet the needs of a growing bioproducts workforce. The program, which is administered in partnership with the Agriculture Center of Excellence, is a component of AHB’s education efforts. Classes began in the fall of 2013, and in addition to the core applied associate degree in plant operations, students can earn certificates in bioproducts, biomass feedstock management, or even a transfer degree in plant operations. “The program prepares students to work in facilities converting biomass into electricity, heat, transportation fuels, clean water and high-value chemicals and products,” says Jason Selwitz, colead of AHB’s Education Team, project manager at the Agriculture Center of Excellence, and a WWCC Energy Systems Technology instructor.

Students are pursuing careers in public works, utilities, pulp and paper, food processing, industrial maintenance, wastewater and drinking water treatment, agriculture and forestry, bioproducts, solid waste management and waste to energy, and engineering contractors. A minimum 10-week summer cooperative work experience is required between the first and second year of the program.

For Madsen, working in this industry also has a moral component. “I’ve used this planet’s resources for my benefit and see the effects imposed on our home, earth and the environment,” he says. “Through self-and outside education, I have come to realize that in order for all of us to continue, we have to value and take care of our planet to move us forward. It’s time to examine and research what benefits and works symbiotically with our needs.”

Madsen’s 18-year-old son Michael, is also a student in the program. As it has developed, so have the increased opportunities for internships and positions. “Three students turned internship experiences into jobs in the biofuels and wastewater areas,” says Selwitz. Industry representatives regularly visit campus to talk with students about their industry sectors, job openings, review resumes, and conduct mock interviews. “By June 2017, we project to see 21 current first-year and dual-degree students graduate into meaningful careers within the rural reaches of the Northwest.”

Growth and collaboration are also virtual. Seven Bellingham Technical College process technology students are currently taking online courses in plant operations through WWCC. Students will earn their process technology degree at BTC and a certificate in Bioproducts from WWCC. Additionally, expansion of the plant operations program to the WWCC Clarkston campus will begin this fall, allowing students the option of earning a certificate in industrial maintenance followed by a degree in plant operations-mechanic.

Chris Madsen is excited to graduate this June. “I see myself working at either ZeaChem, possibly a power plant, or working in some other biofuels-oriented field,” he says. “At my age, I am very thankful that this program came along when it did, and that it is something that seriously interests me and has given me a second working life. The future is bright.”

Author: Betsy Fradd
Advanced Hardwood Biofuels Northwest and Extension Forestry, Washington State University