Energy Efficiency Instructor Stuart Cooley (right) talks to people from the community about environmentally green jobs of the future at the Santa Monica College Bundy campus on Wednesday night. (photo by Brandon Wise)

BUNDY CAMPUS — A cinematographer for most of his life, Adam Meltzer became concerned about his family’s future last year when the economy tanked and the unions representing writers and actors went on strike. Work was sporadic and Meltzer had a daughter to provide for.

The environmental activist decided he needed a career that was more stable. So he went and did something dramatic. He enrolled in an energy efficiency course at Santa Monica College earlier this year in hopes of capitalizing on the sustainability craze and President Obama’s push to create millions of new jobs in the renewable-energy arena.

“It seemed like now [sustainability] was finally getting into the mainstream,” Meltzer, 37, said Wednesday evening during a 15-minute break in class at the Bundy Campus, where he was learning about solar panel technology from City Hall’s energy efficiency engineer, Stuart Cooley.

“I saw this as an opportunity to get out of the trenches as an activist and make money and have a career doing either energy efficiency or green building … ,” he said. “I just saw it as the time is now. It felt right.”

Seeing a need to adapt to the changing times, SMC administrators, along with the Small Business Development Center, have planted the seeds for a “green” curriculum that they believe will train students to be competitive in the global economy and help them start their own businesses or find companies that are expanding.

In addition to the energy efficiency course, which trains students to be energy auditors capable of reducing electric bills for residents and businesses by taking simple and affordable steps, SMC offers a solar installation program that is one of a handful in the region that is certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. The goal is to combine both into a state credentialed program where students will be trained at a high level and venture out into the workforce and possibly create their own businesses.

“I want to get the type of training and certification folks will be looking for in the future because it seems like [sustainability] is becoming more a part of it,” said contractor Jason May, an energy efficiency student. “When the economy recovers, I hope to be able to excel in this niche.”

A third offering is the water wise gardening glass which teaches sustainable landscape architecture. Students learn about commercial level irrigation systems and permaculture. Through the class students can become a certified landscaper.

“The economy is retooling right now and this kind of constant renewal is what is needed so we can have a skilled and knowledgeable workforce to deal with new technologies, making our economy run again,” said SMC President Chui Tsang. “We are doing our part.”

Sustainability has become a part of the college’s curriculum across al fields as part of a climate pact signed by Tsang last year. By signing the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, Tsang committed the college to achieve climate neutrality as soon as possible by reducing greenhouse gases, recycling, harnessing solar energy and enacting other sustainable practices. Students who take English or other classes that fall under the general education requirement learn about sustainability in some way.

“Any person going into any job will have to have some environmental knowledge,” said Genevieve Bertone, SMC’s sustainability project manager. “We are looking at the green economy in a holistic perspective.”

Students are also required to take a course in global citizenship, which teaches them about issues facing the world, such as global warming, social injustice and maintaining clean water supplies.

“These are issues affecting us as residents of the Earth and they are not issues that can be solved with just a local focus.” Tsang said.

The Small Business Development Center plays a crucial role by providing students with the opportunity to consult with professionals and get legal advice on how to run a business — all at no cost to the student. The goal of the SBDC is to attract “eco-preneurs,” said Brendon Sher, the sustainable business consultant at the SBDC who coordinates green tech courses for SMC’s Office of Workforce & Economic Development. With the SBDC’s help, workers can develop skills necessary to increase productivity, retain jobs or help prevent the possibility of being laid off. Through grants, classes like the energy efficiency course and solar installation are offered, helping contractors, architects and others remain competitive.

“This new economy is all about creating your own,” Sher said. “It’s really exciting and inspiring. There’s a lot of opportunity right now and innovation. You can’t just sit around waiting for jobs to fall in your lap. You have to be creative.”

If people are not sure about starting their own business, by attending the green courses, they can network with those who are and find jobs that way, Sher said.

Energy efficiency student Danna Sigal is one of those people who has the “eco-prenuerial” spirit. An architect by trade, Sigal was laid off in December and used the extra time she had to expand her knowledge so that she can become a sustainable building advisor. While reviewing a business plan at the SBDC, Sigal learned about the energy efficiency class and enrolled.

“Energy efficiency in design is becoming more a part of projects so I wanted to refocus my career and leverage the knowledge and relationships for this class to affect a positive change on a much larger scale than I could do on my own,” Sigal said. “It’s awesome.”

In addition to the SBDC, there is also Sustainable Works, a partnership between the college and City Hall with the mission of fostering a culture of sustainability in cities, colleges and businesses. Sustainable Works helps businesses be more energy efficient, thereby helping them cut costs and possibly save during the economic downturn, Bertone said.

“I think it speaks to the college’s well-rounded program for the green economy,” Bertone said.

SMC will continue to develop its sustainable curriculum, including creating an alternative-fuel-vehicle course to train people how to build and repair the cars of the future, Tsang said.

“This is all about re-tooling the workforce,” he said. “The existing workforce has a lot of knowledge, but they need to change the way we apply these skills,” Tsang said. “We need to be nimble so we can respond to changes.”

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