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The Technology of Training the Workforce
by Kristin Brekke

The National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center (NCERC) is perhaps best known for its original mission, which still serves as its core purpose today: to facilitate the commercialization of new technologies for the production of fuel ethanol. But as ethanol production in the U.S. builds out on a larger and larger scale, the Center has found a new niche for itself that is equally important – training the current and future ethanol workforce.

Located just outside St. Louis at the University of Southern Illinois Edwardsville, NCERC is the only facility of its kind in the world. It houses a fermentation research lab, an analytical lab, and a pilot scale ethanol plant that has the flexibility to operate as either a dry mill or wet mill and using a variety of feedstocks. The Center does not conduct discovery research, but rather its role is to assist people and companies with a technology that’s ready for demonstration research, the next stage in the commercialization process and the final step between those technologies that will make it to the marketplace and those that will not.

NCERC Director John Caupert says that in its work with ethanol companies since the Center began operations in 2003, the need for some type of industry training program was brought to their attention.

“ Any time we spoke to an ethanol plant manager or to a vendor, the number one need we heard was the need for people, for qualified individuals ,” Caupert said.

With a pilot plant, fully equipped laboratories, and classroom space all in one location, marrying the testing of technology and the training of people was a perfect fit. In January 2007, NCERC launched its workforce training program and now, twenty months later, more than 300 people have come for classes ranging in length from 5 days to 52 weeks.

“We’ve seen people whose academic backgrounds range from GEDs to PhDs,” Caupert said. “The diversity of our training leads to the diverse backgrounds of the people who come through our doors.”

Even a couple of Hollywood directors, whose names Caupert says you would recognize, have come for ethanol process training to learn more about an industry in which they’ve invested a fair amount of capital.

The people who come to NCERC for training are divided almost equally between those employed by the ethanol industry, at an ethanol plant or related company, and those not currently part of the biofuels workforce.

The Center’s workforce training program focuses on three areas. Students begin in the classroom, graduate up to computer simulation of the ethanol production process, and then go to the pilot plant or the labs for actual hands-on learning.

“ That is what makes this training so unique – that it offers all three components in a stair step manner, in one location ,” Caupert said.

Some U.S. ethanol plants have looked to the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center for training for all of their employees, including the 60 million gallon per year Bunge-Ergon ethanol plant in Vicksburg, Mississippi and Center Ethanol, a 54 mgy ethanol plant in Sauget, Illinois.

Each employee of Center Ethanol not only took the five-day “Fundamentals of Applied Process Operations” course, but also went through an additional two weeks of training – developed collaboratively by the ethanol plant and NCERC – that was specific to Center Ethanol’s plant and process. General Manager Tony Newton said the additional two weeks was a nice extension of the fundamentals course, looking at the topics in much more detail.

“They have everything you need there to train a new person ,” said Center Ethanol general manager, Tony Newton. “It is really valuable for a new plant.”

In addition to training current ethanol industry employees, NCERC has served prospective ethanol workers by training people who have been displaced from other industries, for example those laid off from the automotive industry.

“Since January 2007 we have trained nearly 150 displaced skilled tradespeople,” Caupert said.

These people have a particular skill, such as welding, pipe fitting, or assembly line work, but they need some additional training to get back in the marketplace. Caupert is proud that the Center has a 100 percent placement rate for people in this category whom they’ve trained.

The “Fundamentals of Applied Process Operations” is the main course offered at NCERC, required as a prerequisite for any other training taken at the facility. They also offer internships / externships for additional ethanol process training, and may have 12 to 16 interns there at any given time.

The Center does have a full-time staff of research engineers and operators who carry out research trials and design and construct pilot plant modifications. But to lead the workforce training coursework, they call in experts from the biofuels industry – from industry groups, ethanol plants, vendor companies, academia, and government. For example, when the training programs go over the topic of enzymes and fermentation, experts from companies such as Novozymes, Genencor, Ethanol Technology, or Fermentis may come in to lead that portion of the course.

“It is a tremendous volunteer effort by industry and academia,” Caupert says. “This is one area that makes us so unique and in such high demand.”

In addition to training current ethanol employees and prospective employees coming from other industries, the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center is collaborating with colleges that offer degrees in the biofuels production arena.

Lewis & Clark Community College, which has campuses in Edwardsville and Godfrey, Illinois, now offers an associates degree program in Process Operations Technology to train students for careers in the refining or biofuels industries. Process technicians learn how to operate furnaces, distillation columns, reboilers, heat exchangers, steam systems, and cooling-water systems – the essential elements of all process industries.

“What they recognized was missing was the hands-on, applied learning,” Caupert said. “We have a pilot plant where they can get their hands on it, get their hands dirty doing it.”

Now a collaborator with the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Center, Lewis & Clark’s process tech degree curriculum includes the opportunity to take the five-day “Fundamentals of Applied Process Operations” course and do hands-on learning at the pilot plant.

Similarly, the Center has also partnered with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which has recently launched a 400-level special studies program. Graduate students can receive between two and four credit hours by taking the five-day Fundamentals course.

Caupert emphasizes that their goal is not to take away students from any college or technical school. Actually, just the opposite is what they strive for – collaboration – to offer the hands-on learning that the colleges may not have access to in their area.

“What we do here in training is collaborative,” Caupert said. “That’s the area of our workforce training program we want to see expand.”

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The American Coalition for Ethanol publishes Ethanol Today magazine each month to cover the biofuels industry�s hot topics, including cellulosic ethanol, E85, corn ethanol, food versus fuel, ethanol�s carbon footprint, E10, E15, and mid-range ethanol blends.
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