Green Industry In Need Of Trained Workers

President-elect Barack Obama wants to create five million new green jobs in just 10 years. One of the most promising fronts in the green economy is solar energy. What will the future solar workforce look like? And do the prospects look promising enough for people to make the leap?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President-elect Barack Obama has seen the future of America's workforce, and it's green. He wants to put people back to work...

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive in the years ahead.

MONTAGNE: These green workers will need training. Lawrence Lanahan of member station KVNF went to one solar energy school and met students who want to be a part of this new workforce.

(Soundbite of drilling)

LAWRENCE LANAHAN: Here in western Colorado's North Fork Valley the outdoor campus of Solar Energy International, or SEI, is filled with students tinkering with solar panels. Student John Connateli(ph) used to work for his uncle's fuel oil company in Massachusetts.

Mr. JOHN CONNATELI: Drove the oil truck and service on the boilers.

LANAHAN: Recently another uncle showed him the light, as it were.

Mr. CONNATELI: He was, watch how much voltage I can get off of just this little solar panel itself. And I didn't think any - I was like you're not going to get any volts out of that. And he was watch.

LANAHAN: The panel was just two inches by four inches, but the meter showed three volts.

Mr. CONNATELI: I was shocked.

LANAHAN: John went online and he found SEI. It's one of around 60 training programs in the US where you can take a national exam for an entry level solar knowledge certificate. John applied and he got in - barely. The waiting list was long. Jeff Tobe was one of John's instructors.

Mr. JEFF TOBE (Solar energy instructor, SEI): We almost do no marketing. We're turning people away.

LANAHAN: Enrollment in SEI Solar Electric courses has gone from 768 in 2006 to over 1800 in 2008, and according to instructors here, the student demographic has changed. They used to be environmentalists and do-it-yourselfers.

Mr. TOBE: Now what we see, 90 plus percent of the students in those workshops are there specifically to get a job in the industry.

LANAHAN: The onslaught of students is good news for employers, because in some parts of the country demand for solar electricity is outpacing the supply of trained workers. Jeff Tobe feels that pressure.

Mr. TOBE: Just in the last three years out of our small Paonia office here, myself and several other employees are contacted almost on a monthly basis by recruiters.

LANAHAN: Anna Hindelang(ph) attended SEI earlier this year. Right after she took her class she got a job as an installer in Carbondale, Colorado.

Ms. ANNA HINDELANG: Its hard work, installation-wise I mean it's, you're on a roof, you're having expensive panels in your hands, sometimes you have to dig trenches.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LANAHAN: Anna says that kind of work isn't for everyone, and it takes true passion.

Ms. HINDELANG: I did not get into it because of the pay, definitely.

LANAHAN: This is an industry that varies by region although Congress just eliminated the cap on federal tax incentives for solar panels, state tax incentives for solar energy still drive the market. So do local electricity rates and of course sunlight. Back in Massachusetts, John Connateli turned down a $15-an-hour solar job because it paid less than a competing offer from a traditional heating and cooling company.

Mr. CONNATELI: I worked on roofs before, but I'm not going to do it for $15-an-hour, you're crazy.

LANAHAN: John hopes President-elect Obama will make a huge investment in renewable energy so that solar can compete with coal, gas and oil. He's not alone. Credit and capital are short these days, and those spiking oil prices that drove interest in renewable energy - they've plummeted. And lately solar stocks have been following. Without government intervention, solar advocates worry that the market for sun power will slow down. John Connateli's hopeful, though. And once the money's there, he says he'll put his skills to work.

Mr. CONNATELI: You know, solar, heat, air conditioning, it'll be all well-rounded. That's the best way to run in a business in that kind of a field. You know I told my uncle that, I go Uncle, you know the more tools you got in your belt, the more money you're worth.

LANAHAN: For National Public Radio, I'm Lawrence Lanahan in Paonia, Colorado.

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