by Kim Nowacki
She likes her regular passengers and her route that takes her through Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Venice, but after 10 years behind the wheel, she’s ready to get into the nitty-gritty work of keeping the fleet running.
It also pays more, up to $17 more per hour.
“I’m kind of tired of driving. I feel like it’s something different for me to do,” says the 28-year-old Robinson.
“Then I’d be the first female at Santa Monica Big Blue Bus to work on buses,” she adds proudly.
Kameelah Robinson. (Kim Nowacki)
And right now, she’s the only woman in Los Angeles Trade-Technical College’s Diesel, Alternative Fuels and Hybrid Vehicle Technology classes. The popular program is among the 52 green-integrated courses and four green-related degree and certificate programs at LATTC that range from architecture to solar design and installation and water technology.
While community colleges across California are cutting classes, and even whole semesters, LATTC’s green tech classes are thriving, thanks to a number of grants and scholarships from private business and funding from industry partners.
“This program is expanding,” says Jess Guerra, “Mr. G” to his students, an assistant professor at LATTC. “The main focus in the transportation industry right now is green. So, there are many schools that focus on one of the green sides — hybrid, bio fuels, compressed natural gas. We focus on all three and I think that puts us at the forefront of everything that’s green in the transportation industry.”
At LATTC, the concentration is in two areas: training a new work force and retraining existing workers, says Guerra.
“The thing is, a lot of the technology is already out there. Right now the demand for trained technicians is really high and all of this is being driven by everything from increasing emissions standards to grant funding [for new green equipment] and they might not have anyone trained in that. And that’s where we step in,” says Guerra.
Instructor Jess Guerra. (Kim Nowacki)
In fact, California’s community college system of 110 schools and 2.8 million students is leading the charge to train the green workforce.
“It’s the largest post-secondary institution in the U.S., perhaps the world,” says Ray D. York, dean of the California Community Colleges Economic Workforce Development program, which distributes competitive grants to community colleges for various special programs.
His department anticipates the green technology industry will only continue to grow and that the state’s community colleges should answer the need for a trained workforce ready to take those jobs.
“We hate to train for the sake of training with no jobs at the end,” explains York. “We have to show job placement. We make sure we’re addressing a labor market that’s out there and not just wasting resources.”
LATTC is a campus of beige buildings on the southern edge of downtown Los Angeles situated along the Metro Blue Line. In the F Building, you walk past old-school automotive shops until you reach Guerra’s green tech room. You’ll know you’re in the right spot as soon as you see a Prius parked out front and a large contraption that takes the used cooking oil from the culinary arts program on campus and turns in into biodiesel.
These days, the automotive and diesel technology classes Guerra teaches are far different than the ones he took as a student here in the early 1990s before going to work for L.A. Metro, a company always at the forefront of alternative fuels, he says.
“I saw the opportunity to come back here where I started and also bring some of that over and kind of try to help and push this to where the future’s going,” he notes.
“The message we’re trying to convey out to them is that this is not just something that’s a good job. But it’s something that at the end of the day benefits all of us because we’re all living in the same environment, we’re all breathing the same air and we’re all affected one way or another by the usage of fossil fuels,” says Guerra. “So we really try to sell them and let them see for themselves the benefits of implementing this technology.”
Ramon Gutierrez Jr., gets that. He’ll graduate in June with his Associate’s degree in diesel technology and then hopes to work for a transportation municipality.
Ramon Gutierrez Jr. (Kim Nowacki)
Before starting classes in the fall of 2008, Gutierrez, did “a lot of this, a lot of that,” he says. “Auto body, warehouse jobs, the McDonald’s thing. I did a lot of menial jobs until I got tired of it. I kind of had to grow up so I needed to look for a career. My parents always told me you need to have paper backing behind you, certificates, degrees. So I came back to school.”
Like many of his classmates, he’s here to learn about diesel, not to save the planet. But he notes it’s been interesting to test and see for himself the efficiency of alternative fuels. And he knows that’s where the jobs of the future are, whether you care about the environment or just want a good job.
“I have a little girl so, you know, I don’t want her to be in a polluted world, either,” says Gutierrez, 30. “But it’s a good-paying, in-demand career. Not just a job but a career.”
Graduates of the two-year program, says Guerra, usually go on to work as technicians in transportation municipalities, or at dealerships, independent shops and private fleets that are switching to greener vehicles.
Currently, Santa Monica’s Big Blue Buses run on diesel and natural gas, which is where Robinson, the bus driver, is putting her focus. But, when Santa Monica introduces hybrid buses — Robinson says that’s scheduled for 2012 — she’ll be ready.
“I’ll know what I’m doing,” Robinson says with a big smile, “because I’ll already have that course down pat.”