Editor’s note: Susan Sanford is the executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, which is an industry-led nonprofit dedicated to accelerating the growth of the cleantech economy in the Research Triangle region. More information can be found at www.researchtrianglecleantech.org.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Have you heard about cleantech, the ‘third wave’ of job growth in the Triangle? OK, maybe not, but did you read WRAL TechWire’s recent story about the accelerated growth of cleantech jobs in North Carolina, or see that Governor Cooper plans to reduce North Carolina’s carbon emissions 40% by 2025?

Even if you haven’t, it’s time you knew: cleantech is a world-changing industry, and it’s growing in leaps and bounds right here in the Triangle.

Susan Sanford

I’m proud to announce a new partnership between the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC) and WRAL TechWire to show how the cleantech industry impacts our daily lives and adds value to the region, the state, and the world. I look forward to sharing the successes of the hundreds of organizations and thousands of employees here in the Triangle region who are solving the world’s most critical problems through clean technology.

So… what is cleantech?

In industry terms, ‘clean technology’ describes products, processes, or services that improve performance (outcomes) while reducing cost, energy, resources, and/or waste (inputs).

In other words, you can think of cleantech as any technology that improves our economy and environment – it’s a broad term for many different technologies that we use every day. One key differentiator of cleantech is that it generates profit by improving the bottom line for both customers who use cleantech and organizations that sell solutions.

We use cleantech every time we drive a fuel-efficient car, turn on an energy-efficient lightbulb, or even use smartphones at work to turn down the temperature at home. Cleantech includes Duke Energy modernizing the power grid and increasing its use of renewable energy, Duke University students creating the world’s most fuel-efficient vehicle (at a whopping 14,573 miles per gallon!), and the Town of Cary winning a national award for the way it uses data to improve residents’ lives.

We’re so accustomed to flipping the switch and having light, or turning on the tap and having clean water, that we may not realize the solutions for these basic needs are being developed right here in the Research Triangle.

We call cleantech the ‘third wave’ of innovation-based job growth in the Research Triangle because the region has had two distinct economic booms in the past – first, with IT and hardware in the 1960s (anchored by the arrival of IBM to RTP), and second, with pharmaceuticals and life sciences in the 1970s (after GlaxoSmithKline’s predecessor moved its headquarters from New York to North Carolina). You might say that cleantech arrived shortly afterwards, when Westinghouse moved its headquarters to Raleigh – but the industry really took off in the 2000s as the plunging cost of sensor technology, rapid growth of data analytics, and increased concern about climate change and urbanization created the perfect conditions for an industry boom.

Today, in the Triangle alone, there are more than 1,800 cleantech companies employing nearly 27,000 people. Cleantech jobs in the region have grown at over 24% over the last five years – compared to a 6.7% national average – and trends indicate we could see 40% growth in the next 10 years.

And these are high-quality jobs bringing a lot of value to the region. For example, smart sensor company Sensus created 301 jobs in Durham earlier this year, with average salaries exceeding $90,000 a year.

A focus on students

RTP Cleantech photo

Speed mentoring at a recent RTP Cleantech Cluster event.

But we know that cleantech companies are struggling to find top talent, and we’ll have to work together to sustain job growth and ensure these jobs remain in our region. So how do we guide students and professionals to an industry that is largely unknown?

To answer that question, RTCC created a Talent Action Committee of K12, college, university, nonprofit, and private-sector professionals to articulate the messages that students and young professionals need to know about cleantech, and the methods to get those messages out to the right audiences.

With the help of Project Lead The Way and advisors from our community colleges and public schools, the Talent Action Committee created a new initiative: Educator Immersion Days, where public educators and career counselors from around the Triangle are invited to industry sites to learn about cleantech, discuss career paths, and brainstorm ways to incorporate cleantech into K12 curricula.

 In early October, we brought 22 educators from Wake and Durham public schools to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in RTP for Educator Immersion Day. They toured cleantech labs working in water, emissions, and waste; participated in student-friendly games connecting environmental issues to human health; and engaged in speed mentoring with EPA staff to learn more about career paths and resources available to help teach students about cleantech.

Wake & Durham public school educators participate in an activity showing the connections between energy, environment, and human health

Antia Thomas, environmental science teacher with Durham Public Schools, had been looking forward to Educator Immersion Day – especially the opportunity to discuss career opportunities in cleantech.

“I’m really grateful to find career information I can share with the students,” she said. “The speed mentoring opened my eyes to all the careers involved in cleantech. There are tons of different paths, and you don’t have to be strictly science-minded to work in this field.”

It’s true – while the ‘face’ of cleantech may be an engineer, data scientist, or researcher, the industry wouldn’t exist without HR, marketing, and business leaders. It’s critical that our students and professionals understand just how huge this industry is, and how many different options they have to pursue a successful, valuable career in the field.

Educator Immersion Day is a long-term strategy to attract Triangle students to the booming career opportunities in the cleantech industry. By educating educators like Antia, RTCC is helping to get Triangle students excited about working in a field that improves the environment, economy, and quality of life for people around the world.

Shorter-term strategies include cleantech-focused career fairs to increase awareness about the industry and the diversity of jobs within.

“I was set on moving back to the West Coast,” says Shaina Nanavati, a recent graduate from Duke University, “[until] I met a representative from the [North Carolina Electric] Cooperatives at the Cleantech Connect Career Fair in 2017, which led me to applying for the position I’m in now. If I hadn’t gotten this job at NCEMC, I most likely would have moved back to California, where I grew up, to work in the clean energy sector there. I’m really glad I stayed here.”

RTP Cleantech photo

Shaina Nanavati and Rubenka Bandyopadhyay at the 2018 State Energy Conference.

Shaina, and thousands of others like her, are solving the world’s most critical problems from right here in the Research Triangle region.

RTCC is proud to tell their stories. And we’ll continue to engage educators, organize career fairs, and host networking events to build a stronger cleantech industry and make sure our region is the best it can possibly be.