Back to School

“It blows my mind, that that can be turned into energy we can use,” says Terence Thompson as he points to the sun, shining bright on this warm September morning. He’s fresh from an interview for a job installing solar panels with Real Goods Solar, standing outside the Solar Richmond offices where he learned his new trade. The large building in Richmond’s Iron Triangle also houses the offices of RichmondBUILD and Rising Sun Energy, as well as a warehouse that serves as a training facility.

Thompson is among about thirty recent graduates of RichmondBUILD and Solar Richmond’s job training program, through which he learned about everything from metal stud framing, flooring, and construction math to energy efficiency and solar panel installation. The Richmond resident is confident he’s done well on his interview, but the rest of his group still sits anxiously inside, hoping to be hired for a solar installation on a large apartment complex just down the street.

“This is a good opportunity for us,” Thompson says, visibly upbeat. He graduated in mid-August; if he’s hired it will be his first paying solar job. At age 46, Thompson has been without steady full-time work for a couple years since his wife suffered a stroke. He heard about the job training program from a friend and jumped at the chance to update his skills, recognizing that construction will always be needed and solar tech is a growing field. “They’re going to let me know by the end of the week,” he says.

The United States has—officially—been in recession for more than a year, and at over twelve percent, California has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. The Bay Area has been hit hard by the retraction: San Francisco has a ten percent unemployment rate, and it is even higher in Oakland and Richmond, with both hovering between seventeen and eighteen percent of residents out of work.

Building a green collar workforce has been seen by many as a remedy to simultaneously address two deficits: dire environmental challenges and the ailing economy. While there is no official definition of what constitutes a “green job,” Dr. Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State and the author of Alternative Urban Futures: Planning for Sustainable Development in Cities throughout the World, says that they are usually blue-collar jobs that directly improve environmental quality. These include solar and wind tech jobs, bike repair, waste stream diversion, water efficiency retrofitting, sustainable food production, nontoxic painting and household cleaning, and jobs in mass transit. (Pinderhughes currently serves as the Ecology Center’s board president).

A multitude of green job training programs have sprung up in the Bay Area to accommodate people like Thompson who are underemployed and seeking new skills, and many of them co-exist in this one Richmond complex. RichmondBUILD Green Jobs Training Academy is a public/private partnership sponsored by the city that provides fourteen weeks of construction skills and renewable energy training. Established in the spring of 2007, it was designed to provide green-collar career opportunities and reduce violence in the city. Any Richmond resident with a high school diploma or GED, who can pass a math exam and drug test, can participate in the free program.

One of its partners, Solar Richmond, is a nonprofit program that manages a five-week solar installation curriculum. After training, Solar Richmond provides students with one-on-one case management and coordinates on-the-job-training or internships. Students come from a variety of ages and ethnic backgrounds, and many face significant life challenges in Richmond, where unemployment and violent crime is high. Currently, there is a waiting list of some 300 potential students.

Executive director Michele McGeoy says she launched Solar Richmond in 2006 because she saw that Richmond residents desperately needed green job training. “Solar is one great antidote to pollution, and jobs are one great antidote to violence,” she says.

Solar Richmond participants get hands-on training by building small-scale solar-equipped houses from the bottom up right inside the group’s warehouse. On the same day that Thompson was wrapping up his job interview, students in the next class to graduate had just finished the foundation and walls and were now focused on the roof of their own model home. A table saw whined, and the warehouse was abuzz with students sawing, measuring, and hammering. After this practice run, the group will install a solar system for low-income homeowners, who wouldn’t ordinarily have the means to purchase one.

Putting such a complex project together is a source of great pride for graduates; an indicator that they’re ready for real-world construction jobs. “We did it all,” recalls Thompson of his class’ own home model project. “We built a three-bedroom module from the ground up. We did the walls and roof, windows, HVAC. We learned energy efficiency, solar panels, safety, the works.” Now, he says, as he waits out on the sidewalk after his job interview, “I’m ready. Put me out there.”

In a bad economy, training doesn’t necessarily guarantee anyone a green job. People like Thompson are increasingly competing with college graduates or those who have been laid off and are transitioning into a new field but already have years of work experience. They may also already have skills in higher math, computers, research or writing, or already have a robust environmental literacy—skills that employers value. “Our guys are having different conversations with potential employers than college graduates are,” McGeoy says.

But, as Solar Richmond training and project manager Angela Greene points out, graduates of programs like Solar Richmond and RichmondBUILD have skills that many university students don’t. “Do these grads have basic carpentry and electricity skills?” she asks. “Do they know how to system-size? Do they know to install inverters in the shade? Employers see the value in what we have to offer. We’re not competing with college grads, they’re competing with us.”

Last January, RichmondBUILD conducted a workshop with solar and construction firms to gather feedback on what they want from prospective employees. According to Greene, the biggest response was that employers want people with both “hard skills”—things like knowing how to measure and install panel racks on a roof—and “soft skills” like computer literacy.

Yet whether or not green jobs program graduates can actually get work—much less full-time work—varies widely. RichmondBUILD boasts a ninety percent placement rate with an average wage of over $18 an hour, mostly in construction and clean-up jobs, but this includes both temporary and permanent positions. Solar Richmond has only placed 32 of their 160 graduates in solar-related jobs, and many are temporary jobs without benefits. “Counted this way, our placement rate is twenty percent,” says Zoey Burrows, development and communications manager at Solar Richmond. She points out that even though overall demand for solar technology has gone up, “We still have to get our graduates on those installation jobs in a field that is increasingly popular and competitive.”

Oakland is another city with ambitious environmental goals and an innovative green jobs training program, and its program faces many of the same job placement issues. “Overall, the economy is in the tank, but the green economy overall tends to be last to freeze over and the first to pull out,” says Emily Kirsch, Bay Area Green Jobs Organizer at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland.

The Ella Baker Center is one of the main organizations—along with Laney College, the Cypress Mandela Construction Training Program, and Growth Sector—behind the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, a much-hailed program that provides “green pathways out of poverty” for young adults. The program launched in the fall of 2008, and the inaugural class of forty students graduated this June. “When we started the OGJC it was before the economy crashed, and we found that those employers who had been committed to hiring weren’t able to do so, as they had been laying off people,” Kirsch says. So far, the program has placed 25 of its 40 graduates in solar and construction jobs.

Peter Crabtree, dean of instruction for vocational technology at Laney College, a Job Corps partner, points out that new graduates are facing a tough job market. “We started the program before the crash and targeted students heavily towards the solar industry,” he says. “But then this last year, it almost dried up, and we found that solar companies were enormously picky about who they hired. There might be one opening and fifty applications. We found our own grads were competing with journeyman carpenters, laid-off engineers, whoever.”

“It’s been very, very slow and it hasn’t really picked up yet. There are lots of dislocated workers out there competing for the same jobs,” agrees Caz Pereira, director of Growth Sector, the Job Corps partner that coordinates work placement. He says the key is to diversify training, and to be realistic about work availability. “First we have to ask, ‘How many jobs?’ then, ‘When will they be available?’” he says.

Yet green jobs proponents like Pinderhughes expect that some markets will continue to grow despite the recession and thanks to an infusion of federal and state funds, including energy efficiency and transportation dollars. “We’re going to see three major green economy sectors grow, with cities playing a major role,” she says, “First, energy efficiency, or what I call whole home performance. Second, and complementary to this, is water efficiency retrofits. And third, recycling and waste management.”

In addition to these three, she adds solar installation and mass transit. Local transit agencies struggle in good years, but are especially suffering this year, with dwindling funds from the state, and many announcing service rollbacks and lay-offs. (See story on page 21.) But construction of the new Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, which broke ground for a temporary terminal in 2008 and will continue construction through 2019, is expected to provide many work opportunities. The project will connect regional bus lines, including AC Transit, with BART and Caltrain, and will eventually be the northern terminus of the California high-speed rail system—all transit options that provide alternatives to cars and could help reduce pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Michael Cohen, director of San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, “The construction of the transit center will generate more than 125,000 new jobs in San Francisco and will help add to the Bay Area’s base of permanent employment. It is the kind of project that can tap federal stimulus funds, create jobs, and provide Bay Area residents with transit options unrivaled anywhere else in the country.”

To date, much green jobs training has focused on solar and other forms of renewable energy as growth fields. Indeed, a June report from the Pew Charitable Trust found that clean energy outpaced general job growth nationwide over the last decade, at 9.1 percent compared to 3.7 percent. (In California it was much closer at 7.7 percent compared to 6.7 percent.)

But Bay Area demand for solar energy has recently had some ups and downs. “A year ago it was looking pretty abysmal,” says document coordinator Kara Taddei of Sebastopol-based Solar Works. “People just weren’t interested. But it’s definitely increased in the last six months.” This year, says Kent Halliburton, vice president of sales at Real Goods Solar in San Rafael, sales are up approximately 30 percent.

Solar equipment suppliers say that a recent uptick in consumer interest is largely due to the dropping cost of solar panels and to government incentives like federal tax credits, state incentives, utility rebates, and innovative municipal programs like Berkeley’s solar financing program, in which homeowners pay back the upfront price of installing solar panels with their property taxes over twenty years. Sonoma County also has a similar financing method, called the Energy Independence Program, and San Francisco will soon announce the nation’s largest solar and renewable energy financing program, the Clean Energy Loan Program. In addition to solar installations, small-scale wind projects and energy efficiency upgrades will be eligible for financing.

All this means more job opportunities in the green energy market, but as Jan Halasz, design and finance consultant at Cal Solar Works in Fremont, cautions, “Incentives and tax benefits are the backbone of the solar business. Without those the market would collapse.” And of course the jobs would go with it.

Some of the local smaller “hidden” green businesses—ones like bike repair, materials reuse, and small farms that are unlikely to qualify for federal stimulus money—still aren’t sure if the recession has helped or hurt them, and report that they’re essentially holding steady. “When the word broke about a year ago of the Wall Street crisis, nothing much changed here,” says Dan Thomas, workerowner of the Box Dog Bikes cooperative in San Francisco. He says that for the first few years of the recessionary era, his business enjoyed “a steep upward trend,” but this year has been a mixed bag: the store hired a couple more employees over the summer, although sales leveled off.

Micah Sanders, co-owner of the Bent Spoke, a bike shop in North Oakland, concurred. “In 2007 we had around twenty percent growth. Gas was high, and more people seemed to be biking,” he says. “This year is flat in terms of sales. Repairs and jobs-wise, the same thing. Hopefully things are turning around. We’re starting to see people loosening their wallets.”

Full Belly Farm, a 200-acre certified organic farm in the Capay Valley that services restaurants, wholesalers, farmers markets, and runs a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, reports a similar slowdown. “We’ve stayed flat from last year to this year,” says partner Judith Redmond, despite the farm’s sales figures having grown every previous year since it opened in 1985. While she’s not sure if the downtrend is entirely due to the recession, Redmond notes that sales at farmers markets and via its CSA program dropped off this year.

Flat sales mean that these small green businesses can’t expand to take on new staffers. For example, “We had hoped to add [employees], but had to put a hold on that,” says operations manager Mary Lou Van Deventer of the Urban Ore Ecopark in Berkeley, which houses three acres of used doors, bathtubs, lumber, metal and furniture for sale. Overall, she says, the business hasn’t grown since last year. “At the beginning of the year [business] was a little better than expected. Since June, retail sales have slowed down,” she says. “I think the recession finally caught up.”

Despite the sales slowdown for some local green businesses, and an increasingly competitive job market, government funds continue to pour in for more green jobs education, meaning that there will soon be more green jobs grads looking for work. In October, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced the recipients of the Clean Energy Workforce Training Program grants, nearly $27 million in stimulus funds for educating Californians in green construction and clean tech jobs. It is being Continued from page 18 Winter 2009 21 hailed as the nation’s largest green workforce program to date, and will train an estimated 5,600 people.

Several of the grant recipients are in the Bay Area. The cities of Richmond and San Francisco will receive the most money, at $1.5 million and $1.3 million respectively. The Peralta Community College District (which includes Oakland’s Laney College), the Contra Costa Community College District, and Sonoma County will each receive about $1 million.

These programs will train students in skills such as home energy auditing, solar installation and photovoltaic panel repair, water treatment, home weatherization, and repairing electric cars. Many of these programs do not require a two- or four-year degree but can be completed in a semester or two, and are targeted at people who will be entering the green jobs workforce in the near future. The philosophy behind stimulus funds is to “get them out quick, make them count, so people get trained, and the jobs are there,” says Crabtree.

At Contra Costa Community College, the money will go primarily to teaching students about hybrid and electric car systems, solar technology, and green building construction. The stimulus money will expand course offerings and help pay for equipment and technology for the students to use.

RichmondBUILD and Richmond Solar will receive some of that grant money to support their current training, and Laney College and its partner, the Cypress Mandela Training Center, will use it to expand and diversify their workforce training programs. The second cohort of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps is training right now, with over forty students in classes. With the new funds, 120 more will begin the six-month program in January.

For Terence Thompson, this kind of green jobs training seems to be paying off—he recently found out that he aced his job interview. Along with about ten graduates from the Solar Richmond program, he was hired for a temporary $15/hour photovoltaic panel installation project on a Richmond apartment building. In early November he started with the ground crew prepping solar panels and installing converter boxes, but the job only lasts until December. “If we do a good job, show them that we’re good workers, they could hire some of us on more permanently,” Thompson says.

In the meantime, he is keeping busy. He says he has his resume online and is looking on Craigslist for jobs for when this project is over. Several companies, whose representatives he met during the program, told him to let them know when he finishes up at the apartment complex. Thompson is also dreaming big: “Some day maybe I’ll own my own solar business,” he says.

Comments are closed.