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Green Jobs Recharge Lives

New America Media, News Feature, Ngoc Nguyen Posted: Nov 19, 2008

Editor's note: A Richmond, Calif. program is training a green collar workforce to do rooftop solar installations and other jobs in the burgeoning green economy. NAM editor Ngoc Nguyen reports.

RICHMOND, Calif. -- Nearly 70 years ago, Richmond was a bustling shipyard where women and a predominantly African-American population farm workers and sharecroppers from the South retrained as welders and ship builders assembled hundreds of vessels in the deep waters offshore. Nowadays, the "city of pride and purpose" is known more for pollution from oil refineries, joblessness, and crime than its World War II industries.

But, a program that trains men and women to install solar panels atop city homes and buildings, aims to spark a renewal in the city by joining a nascent solar and green industry and generating so-called green jobs.

On a recent sunny day in Richmond, about a dozen workers installed 12 solar panels a 1.8- kilowatt system on the rooftop of a home. The workers are trainees in Solar Richmond BUILD, a joint program of Solar Richmond, a nonprofit solar installation group, and Richmond BUILD, a construction skills and solar installation training program run by Richmond.

A member of the current class, Kapris James, descends a ladder with ease after helping to install the panels.

Kapris JamesTrainee Kapris James will start a new job after graduation.

"I wasn't interested in solar at first," said the 23-year-old, sporting a yellow hard hat. "We did two solar installations. On my first install, I had fun. I like being on the roof. I'm comfortable on there now."

The program started 18 months ago, and holds a 10-week session every three months with about 30 people in each class. They could accept more trainees, Lucero said, but the job market won't be able to absorb them all. Trainees are required to participate in two rooftop solar home installations in order to graduate from the program.

After graduation, James will be starting a $25 per hour job as assistant to a supervisor on a construction site. James said she moved back to Richmond from Sacramento and was working as a pizza delivery driver. Her mom told her about Solar Richmond BUILD and encouraged her to enroll.

When James tells friends about the program, she said they ask her where to sign up for the training. "So many people want to get in," she said.

The souring economy's high joblessness coupled with more buzz around jobs created from a burgeoning green economy have driven up interest in the program, which has a waiting list of at least 130 people.

"Interest in the program has really increased," said Fred Lucero, Richmond BUILD project manager. "News about the program spread through word of mouth, and interest went up after the first cohort, when people graduated and went to work."

While demand for green jobs training goes up, programs like Solar Richmond BUILD "will have to hold on until major funding comes through," said Ian Kim, Green-Collar Jobs Campaign director at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.

Two important components of the federal 2007 Energy Bill--a Green Jobs Act and funding for energy efficiency programs--were authorized, Kim said, but not funded.

"We're very, very confident that in 2009, the new administration and President-elect Obama will fund the programs," he said. "Obama has been talking a lot about the idea of green jobs." Obama has touted a $25-billion infusion into the green economy to create 5 million new jobs.

Kim said the $125 million earmarked in the Green Jobs Act would be a good first step. "That's really enough to fund pilot programs around the country." Kim pointed to Solar Richmond BUILD as a model program, but said the challenge such programs face is finding jobs for trainees.

InstallationSolar Richmond BUILD trainees install 12 solar panels atop a Richmond home.

The latest class will graduate Nov. 20. Of 24 graduates, eight already have job placements. The rest, Lucero said, have "pending employment" through paid internships in the solar industry or temporary jobs. The internships pay $15 per hour.

About a quarter of the graduates go on to work in the solar industry, said Sal Vaca, Richmond's director of employment and training. Lucero said that number also includes those who work in the "green industry" doing work such as caulking, sealing and weatherproofing. Other graduates find employment in the unionized trades and may work as carpenters, laborers, and scrapers/drywallers, where starting pay ranges from $15 to $20 per hour.

Richmond BUILD is funded mainly through state grants and some corporate donations. Each three-month session costs $175,000, and the annual cost of the program is about half a million dollars, Vaca said.

Lucero said he believes the program has had a positive impact on the community by helping people go to work.

"That's the green movement here," he said. "Almost all of them have not seen an "Inconvenient Truth," but once introduced to solar, the bigger picture comes in [about] alternative energy and making a living as a solar installer."

In January, Richmond BUILD will expand the training to 12 weeks and add more "green" concepts to the core construction training, including weather stripping, insulation and energy efficiency in the last five weeks.

Angela Greene signed up for Richmond BUILD after losing her job at the age of 47. "I had to go back into the workforce," she said. "It was scary. People were rude."
Angela GreeneAngela Greene oversees a solar installation.
Now a program manager with Solar Richmond, Greene works with youth and oversees every rooftop installation.

Lucero and Vaca of Richmond BUILD said they expect graduates of the program, like Greene, to be on a fast track to becoming managers or business owners in the solar and green industry.

Greene said she believes the program can be a "career ladder." Sitting on the rooftop, taking in the panoramic view of Richmond, Greene looks relaxed and comfortable.

She said she started her own business maintaining solar panels, which need to be cleaned, and recently completed a maintenance job for a large retail department store.

Once exposed to "green" ideas, she said, the opportunity is there for those who want to run with it.

Greene said the experience of going through the program has been about self-renewal: "I recharged myself. When I take care of me, I can take care of everything else."

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