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Retrained for green jobs, but still waiting on work

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 10:07 PM

OCALA, FLA. - After losing his way in the old economy, Laurance Anton tried to assure his place in the new one by signing up for green jobs training earlier this year at his local community college.

Anton has been out of work since 2008, when his job as a surveyor vanished with Florida's once-sizzling housing market. After a futile search, at age 56 he reluctantly returned to school to learn the kind of job skills the Obama administration is wagering will soon fuel an employment boom: solar installation, sustainable landscape design, recycling and green demolition.

Anton said the classes, funded with a $2.9 million federal grant to Ocala's workforce development organization, have taught him a lot. He's learned how to apply Ohm's law, how to solder tiny components on circuit boards and how to disassemble rather than demolish a building.

The only problem is that his new skills have not resulted in a single job offer. Officials who run Ocala's green jobs training program say the same is true for three-quarters of their first 100 graduates.

"I think I have put in 200 applications," said Anton, who exhausted his unemployment benefits months ago and now relies on food stamps and his dwindling savings to survive. "I'm long past the point where I need some regular income."

With nearly 15 million Americans out of work and the unemployment rate hovering above 9 percent for 18 consecutive months, policymakers desperate to stoke job creation have bet heavily on green energy. The Obama administration channeled more than $90 billion from the $814 billion economic stimulus bill into clean energy technology, confident that the investment would grow into the economy's next big thing.

The infusion of money is going to projects such as weatherizing public buildings and constructing advanced battery plants in the industrial Midwest, financing solar electric plants in the Mojave desert and training green energy workers.

But the huge federal investment has run headlong into the stubborn reality that the market for renewable energy products - and workers - remains in its infancy. The administration says that its stimulus investment has saved or created 225,000 jobs in the green energy industry, a pittance in an economy that has shed 7.5 million jobs since the recession took hold in December 2007.

The industry's growth has been undercut by the simple economic fact that fossil fuels remain cheaper than renewables. Both Obama administration officials and green energy executives say that the business needs not just government incentives, but also rules and regulations that force people and business to turn to renewable energy.

Without government mandates dictating how much renewable energy utilities must use to generate electricity, or placing a price on the polluting carbon emitted by fossil fuels, they say, green energy cannot begin to reach its job creation potential.

"We keep getting these stops and starts in the industry. There is no way it can work like this," said Bill Gallagher, president of Solar-Fit, a Florida energy company whose fortunes have fluctuated with government incentives in its 35 years in business.

Like many people who run renewable energy companies, Gallagher said he sees no need to expand his 25-employee firm because the business is simply not there.

Although 29 states have enacted laws setting benchmarks for the amount of energy utilities must generate from renewable sources such as wind and solar, the standards vary greatly. And with a new congressional majority poised to take office - including many members elected pledging to reduce Washington's role in the economy - it remains an open question whether new federal regulations that would support expansion of the industry would be enacted anytime soon.

"Green energy investment has been a central talking point of the Obama administration's job growth strategy," said Samuel Sherraden, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research organization. "It was a little bit too ambitious given the size and depth of the recession and the small size of the renewable energy industry."

Sherraden said it was unwise for the administration to invest so heavily in green energy, at least if short-term job creation was the goal. He said green energy comes with "political and market uncertainty" that has overwhelmed its job creation potential.

Despite that, Obama has described the surge of clean energy spending as crucial both to the nation's economic and environmental future.

"Our future as a nation depends on making sure that the jobs and industries of the 21st century take root here in America," Obama said in October. "And there is perhaps no industry with more potential to create jobs now - and growth in the coming years - than clean energy."

But other administration officials acknowledge that it is likely to be years before the spending on green energy produces large numbers of jobs. And they add that only part of the money earmarked for green energy has been spent. They also agree that the government will have to help create demand to support green energy.

Still, they are optimistic for the long term, even if the spending will not significantly ease the nation's unemployment crisis in the short run.

The money going into building car battery plants, for example, could allow the nation to capture as much as 40 percent of the global demand in that growing business in five to seven years, said Carol M. Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy.

"This stuff is coming on line," Browner said. "We all want it to come on line much more quickly."

Here in Ocala, the federal emphasis on green energy was eagerly embraced by local officials grasping for ways to blunt the area's skyrocketing jobless rate, which now stands at 14 percent.

The housing crisis had decimated the local economy, wiping out thousands of jobs that will probably never return. There were huge losses in construction jobs. Several plants that made building supplies and home furnishings have gone out of business. And last year, Taylor Bean and Whitaker, a mortgage company that employed more than 1,000 people, suddenly closed.

Now with real estate development not predicted to resume its former breakneck pace anytime in the foreseeable future, the local economy is left without an obvious source of new jobs.

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.

But now, after nearly two years of being out of work and a series of classes that have not led to a job, his optimism is dimming.

"What is the point of giving somebody the tools to do something but to have nowhere to use them?" he asked. "I think it's a great program, but I don't see the connection with all the training and jobs. And I need a job."

Christine Bageant, 45, also jumped at the opportunity to train in green jobs, after losing her position at the county library. She viewed the new classes as an opportunity to "get in on the ground floor of something big."

Since then she has earned similar training certificates as Arandia. A few months ago she started looking for work as a painter. She thought her newly acquired expertise in abating lead paint would make her a hot commodity.

But many of the painting contractors she has interviewed with are tiny companies, with no more than two or three employees. They are struggling to survive, and Bageant's expertise in lead abatement has left them unimpressed.

"Right now they are blowing it off," she shrugged. "They don't think it's important."

Officials who helped develop the training program nod knowingly when asked about the difficulty graduates are having landing jobs.

"I think this is a great program," said Peter J. Tesch, president and chief executive of the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp. "Applying it to real life, that is the challenge. In a place like Florida everybody's talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. The market place has not caught up to the technical training and skill sets that have been provided these people."

That much was obvious at a recent ceremony for 15 graduates of a solar electric training class. The students beamed proudly as family members took pictures and program officials offered words of wisdom.

Then, one-by-one, they walked up front to receive their certificates. But rather than serving as a passport to a job, the certificates were more like IOUs to be redeemed sometime in the distant future.

"There is significant job creation potential in clean energy. But it is not revealing itself quickly or clearly," said Jerone Gamble, executive manager of continuing education at the College of Central Florida, and a chief architect of the green jobs training program. "In the time being, we're really selling hope."

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