IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG, when I set out to find a green job this spring, to discover something fairly critical about myself: I have no skills. "We'll fire you!" our editor, Chris, had joked, "and you can get a green job!" We'll see who has the last laugh, I smirked, when I'm making bank installing solar panels across town.
My dream collapsed just a few mornings later, outside an off-the-grid monster home in the New Mexico desert. I was standing with 25 other would-be solar geniuses from the Santa Fe Community College, ogling the homeowner's Wattsun dual-axis trackers as the 4.59-kilowatt array slowly swiveledwhirrrrrin pursuit of the low morning sun. By the time we made it into the power room, a pristine bunker full of enough third-party converters and banks of batteries to run the Red October, it was clear that there was no way in hell I was installing solar panels.
I wasn't the only disheartened soul. "See, I'm not gonna come out and install that," said one of the students as he looked dolefully out at the array. "It's too late in life for me."
Tell me about it.
FOR MANY OF US stressed-out workers, the 5.1 million newly unemployed and the millions more who are scared we might soon be, the green job has become the light at the end of the tunnel. What started as a crusade by Green for All founder (now White House special adviser) Van Jones to include low-income communities in the emerging clean-tech economy has become a big part of America's ticket back to prosperity.
"We are not talking Buck Rogers jobs or science-fiction jobs or George Jetson jobs," Jones told Congress in January. "These are very familiar jobs in familiar tradesroofers, metal workers, electricians, carpenters, etc." And the beauty is that they can't be outsourced. "Solar panels don't install themselves," he said. "Wind turbines don't manufacture themselves. Homes and buildings don't retrofit or weatherize themselves....Real people must do all of that work."
They're about to. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will provide $500 million for green-jobs trainingand that's only part of nearly $60 billion in overall renewable-energy investment, which will push the demand for those green workers even higher. With a lot of the cash funneled through competitive grants, states are scrambling to come up with training programs to grab their slice of the pie. It doesn't matter if your state is red or blue, or whether or not you believe in global warming: As one New Mexico rancher told John Fogarty, director of the Santa Febased policy group New Energy Economy, "if I were a chocolate maker, I would not need to believe in the Easter Bunny to get excited about Easter."
I figured my own state was as good a place as any to explore the new green workscape. The Land of Enchantment may rank a mere 37th in the nation in renewable-energy generation today, but we're No. 2 in solar-energy potential, No. 4 in geothermal, and No. 12 in wind. In addition to the $1.8 billion the state is expecting in stimulus funds, New Mexico has a brand-new "green cabinet,"our own green-jobs act, and $1 million a year in state funding for apprenticeship programs.
But as I learned, you can't just go out and get yourself one of them green jobs. First, while any American, jobless or not, can call up the federal Employment and Training Administration's One-Stop Career Center Helpline, the real government boosts will go to people who've traditionally gotten the shaft: low-income populations, at-risk youth, returning veterans, single moms, and, here in the Southwest, members of the Navajo Nation, where unemployment rates hover near 50 percent. If you're currently employed, that means no jobs training for you.
Second, this ain't your grandfather's CCC. While the National Park Service has plenty of opportunities for young people who want to fix trails or pull weeds, a big chunk of its $750 million in stimulus money will pay for renewable-energy projects. And to do that kind of work, you need serious technical training.
MY SHORTCOMINGS were cruelly brought home again on New Mexico's windswept eastern plains, at the North American Wind Research and Training Center, at Mesalands Community College. Already booming with career changers, community colleges will serve as the states' primary renewable-energy training grounds. San Juan College, up in Farmington, started offering a one-year solar-energy certificate back in 2000and now has an eight-year waiting list. In Tucumcari, where Mesalands' new 1.5-megawatt turbine spins 300 feet above the neon of Route 66, the training center was hatching its first class of wind technicians.
The first myth busted by program director Tracy Rascoe was the idea that you can breeze your way to a green job. People have this idea, the former Navy sonar operator said, that they can just "go to the Mesalands drive-through, pull up to the box, and say, Yes, I'd love an associate of applied science in wind-energy technology!"
Not so fast. Rascoe, a soft-spoken guy with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a sweet 102cc Yamaha motorcycle, has been training wind techs since 2000. Beyond the willingness to climb 300 feet up in a turbine in conditions ranging from 128 degrees to 60 below, he says, they have to be proficient in mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, and computer systems. Rascoe's job is to impart all this to 25 men and three women from nine states, including a homeschooled 17-year-old Mennonite kid and a tattooed Vietnam vet in his late fifties.
"How's it going?" Rascoe asked the class.
"Plugging along," somebody volunteered.
"Notice our big baby's cranking away!"
Indeed, the massive GE turbine's three 121-foot-long blades were casting quick shadows on the dirt lot outsidewhoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Inside its huge tubular tower, painted futuristic white and filled with a steady thrum, was an intimidating wall of circuit boards controlled by a tiny laptop, all of it dwarfed by a 300-foot ladder soaring up into the darkness. It was the perfect student lab. But no touchy the turbine until you've crossed a few academic hurdles.
Rascoe settled me in at the computer lab with a group working on their e-learning modules, and I started clicking through Basics of Hydraulic Motors, diligently scribbling notes about actuators and fluid pressure until I was ready for the "self-test."
Buzz! Zzzzz! Ten out of ten wrong.
"This could be the beginning of a whole new career for you," the guy next to me joked. But while I was off to a rough start, my scores did improve, thank you. Plus my poor mechanical skills didn't rule me out for admissionall I'd need to be accepted was high-school-level English and math, a $200 deposit, and the ability to lift 75 pounds. Most people in the class, in fact, had post-secondary degrees: Chris used to be a mortgage broker in Albany. Taylor was a National Guard trombonist. Max had just sold his landscaping company in Fort Worth. And Chase, a Kentucky native, ran logistics for a freight company before diesel climbed to $5 a gallon last summer.
The program takes two years, it's true, but in-state tuition is only $600 a semestera pretty good investment for a job that starts at $25 to $35 an hour. "Now's the time," Rascoe told the students over in the AC/DC electricity lab. "You don't get a second chance out there to learn this foundation stuff. You're up in a turbine and you have a situation, you can't call Mommy and Daddy."
If they learned their skills cold, he constantly reminded them, the opportunities were huge. Rascoe had seen good people move up from techs to vice presidents in five or six years. "A wind turbine doesn't go whoosh, whoosh, whoosh," he said. "It's ching, ching, ching!"
IN THE MOST DISMAL economy in decades, can the outlook be as rosy as all that? "Green jobs are not automatically good jobs," a report by D.C. nonprofit Good Jobs First recently cautioned. Wages for some wind and solar manufacturers, the study found, lag behind comparable jobs in durable goods. And the credit crunch hasn't spared the renewable-energy industry. T. Boone Pickens delayed his 4,000-megawatt wind farm in Texas, and both solar and wind companies have had layoffs.
"Even an Olympic swimmer can be carried out to sea by a riptide," John Fogarty says. "And we have one heck of a riptide going with our economy." But while renewables have been hit like everything else, the stimulus bill's heavy focus on energy means that the sector is poised to bounce back much higher and faster than others.
"I agree that, right now, it's not there," he says. "It's hard for somebody who is unemployed and wants to get into the clean-energy business to find a job. But if somebody went to a two-year solar program, I guarantee that they will write their own ticket."
Consider this: The shortage of trained renewable-energy workers is so acute that General Electric has committed to hiring all of Tracy Rascoe's 60 to 80 graduates for the next three years. Now multiply that shortage by the 32 states that have alreadymandated renewable-portfolio standards of 15 percent or higher by 2020. Factor in the sales and administrative jobs that come with a new industry and you've got a track with explosive growth.
I KNEW I WASN'T the only one experiencing a nagging anxiety about being left out of the big green party. And I'd burned enough hours wandering in the wilderness of government help lines and Web sites to see that the bureaucratic jungle is tangled and dark.
The person who finally turned my worry to possibility was Kevin Doyle, founder of the Boston-based consulting firm Green Economy. "How did green jobs come to mean renewable-energy jobs?" he asked. What about conservation biologists? Park rangers? "Once you stop defining your green opportunities around six or seven job titles in clean energy, then you're back where you were and, frankly, where you always are, which is: Who are you? What do you want to do?"
That's all very nice, I said, but when you're in free fall, the last thing on your mind is the color of your parachute.
Au contraire, said Doyle: Following your bliss is precisely your smartest move. Take, for example, a Wall Street casualty. "OK," he posited, "you're 55 years old. You're out of work; you don't see any opportunities in your previous training; you're competing against younger, hungrier people. So what's your first step?" It is, he said, to identify people who do what you'd like to do, go talk to them, and measure the gap between their experience and yours. "You might fail," Doyle allowed. "It's risky, and the older you get and the more you want to make a change from who you've been to who you want to be, the riskier it gets. But the riskiest strategy of all is to just get in a line with a whole bunch of other people."
So maybe there's a green future in (recycled) pencil pushing after all. And maybe there's one in landscaping and green finance and, yes, wind. I've been thinking a lot about Rascoe's students, fanning out into the wind farms of America. They'll be out there in their hardhats, climbing the towers, checking the circuits, and watching the big blades fill their walletsching, ching, ching!
The Big Picture: The federal government's Career Voyages site offers the most comprehensive statistics about "in-demand" occupations, employment resources, and info about training programs (careervoyages.gov). Also check out the Green Careers Center for job boards and conferences (environmentalcareer.com).
Energy Efficiency: Weatherization is the fastest-growing field among enviro jobs. Certification from the Building Performance Institute (bpi.org) or LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design; ) will set you apart.
Solar and Wind: The Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy career page can link you to career opportunities, job boards, and federal and state programs (eere.energy.gov/education
/careers.html). Also check out trade associations like the American Solar Energy Society (ases.org) and the American Wind Energy Association (awea.org).
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