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Retrained for green jobs, but still waiting on work

Laurance Anton and students from the College of Central Florida are playing key roles in the development of green jobs across the nation.

That means many of the real estate agents, construction workers, mortgage brokers, kitchen cabinet makers, retail clerks and building supply people thrown out of work are going to have to find new careers. The overhang of workers who will need new skills to find work in new industries made the promise of green energy jobs all the more appealing.

When Workforce Connection, Ocala's regional work force development board, applied for a federal green jobs training grant last year, its top goal was to retrain 665 workers in green jobs skills with "immediate employment potential."

Ocala seemed like a good place to bet on green energy, particularly solar. The region's various window companies and other light manufacturing firms, coupled with its strategic location as a southeastern distribution hub make it a natural, local officials said.

"We felt like the expertise of a lot of the companies here translated easily to making solar panels and such," said Rusty Skinner, chief executive officer of Workforce Connection. "When you think of it, a solar panel is nothing more than a window with some added mechanisms."

Meanwhile, central Florida's abundant sunshine made the idea of marketing solar hot water heaters and solar electrical systems to nearby homeowners seem like a winning proposition.

But those assumptions have yet to pan out.

Federal incentives, which cover 30 percent of the installation costs, were offset by a state energy policy in disarray. Funding for a Florida program that offered rebates to residents and businesses who invested in solar energy was suspended earlier this year, leaving more than $50 million in claims up in the air and paralyzing the solar energy business.

Although Florida officials recently decided to use federal stimulus money to pay down part of the backlog of claims, the damage had been done. The turmoil over the incentive programs meant installation firms and manufacturers no longer had a reason to expand, green energy advocates said.

"There is no growth in this industry right now," said Colleen Kettles, executive director of the Florida Solar Research and Education Foundation. "In fact, some are going out of business."

Meanwhile, many of the unemployed workers who have retrained for jobs in the green energy business are out of luck.

Carols Arandia, 59, has earned seven green jobs certificates since beginning classes this year, while renting a room from a friend to weather the hard times.

Often studying well into the night, Arandia is familiar with hard work. He ran a small manufacturing business in his native Venezuela before arriving in the United States in 1996. For years, he lugged around a dictionary and a notebook in which he religiously wrote down words and phrases until his English became passable. He worked seven years at Boston Chicken. Later, he sold cars.


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