Lots of training for the “green” industry-but will jobs be there?

Want to work in the emerging “green” energy industry? There are plenty of training opportunities out there. From state universities to local anti-poverty agencies, Connecticut offers dozens of programs to prepare workers for these new jobs, mostly funded with federal stimulus money.

What isn’t out there, critics say, are the jobs, in part because of a lack of commitment by the state.

“In making investments and maintaining the supports for green businesses, the state is clearly falling behind,” said Christopher Phelps, program director for Environment Connecticut. “While people are receiving training for clean energy technology it’s quite possible in too many instances those jobs will actually be located in Massachusetts or New York or other states.”

In recent years, the state has allocated millions of dollars in federal economic stimulus money to training for green jobs, much of it aimed at people who are unemployed or threatened with unemployment.

They are intended to help people like sheet metal worker Pernell Clark, 35, of Bridgeport, who was laid off more than a year ago and whose unemployment benefits are running out.  Julio Martinez, 49, an electrician, has a hard time finding work. Linda Ouellet, 49, a former mortgage underwriter, has been laid off three times in recent years.

The three are receiving green jobs training through a $4 million federal stimulus grant aimed at helping unemployed and low-income residents find jobs in the budding green industry. The program is run by The Workplace Inc. of Bridgeport, which hopes to train 500 workers through the grant for employment ranging from cleaning brownfields to installing solar panels.

“I thought this is a very up and coming field,” said Ouellet. “I’d like to get into something where I’m actually helping the environment.”

In Hartford, Capital Workforce Partners  has trained about 60 workers for weatherization programs through a  $260,000 federal grant and expects to train 60 more next year, said Pamela Nabors, director of One-Stop Services for Capital.

The state’s higher education system also is gearing up for green jobs training classes. In June Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed legislation requiring the state’s public universities, community and technical colleges to coordinate development of green technology curriculum. Under the law, the colleges must coordinate with employers to determine what training programs are needed to prepare workers for green jobs. Other legislation also required that colleges provide short-term non-credit certification programs for unemployed workers.

The state has also received several federal grants through the stimulus package for green job initiatives. This includes $6 million from a $64 million grant to train weatherization workers and a $3.36 million State Energy Sector Partnership Grant, said Matthew Fritz, special assistant to the governor and state recovery act coordinator. About $760,000 of the $3.36 million grant will be put into a Green Jobs Training Incentive Fund which hopes to train 895 workers. The State Energy Sector grant will also be used to train clean water technicians and energy efficiency building auditors.

“There is several different pots of money out there for training,” said Fritz. He said the state doesn’t have a complete count of the number of people being trained.

But some say the state has not done enough to sustain growth of the fledging green industry so there will be enough jobs for those who are getting the training.

“While it’s important to train workers we need to understand a little better why we are training workers for an industry that may not exist. It all seems a little backwards,” said Michael Trahan, executive director of Solar Connecticut Inc., a non-profit solar advocacy group.

Trahan said Rell’s veto this May of an energy bill that had provisions that would have helped stabilize the solar power companies and create 1,000 jobs set the industry back significantly.

“It’s incredibly frustrating that dollars are set up for job training but yet those same groups setting those dollars aside are having difficult formulating how the solar industry is going to survive so those trainees can get to work,” he said.

In addition to the veto of the energy bill, Rell and the legislature approved a budget that will strip 35 percent of the cash in the state’s energy conservation and load management fund said Phelps of Environment Connecticut, a clean energy advocacy group. The measure will take money from the fund starting in 2012 for the next eight years to help securitize borrowing that is needed to help plug the state budget gap.

“While our surrounding  neighbors are expanding support of clean energy, Connecticut is at best  treading water, and when it comes to solar, really moving backwards,” said Phelps.

Fritz said Rell supported the solar provisions in the energy bill but vetoed the sweeping bill for other reasons. He said there is still money in another fund, the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, that supports green technology and that the state is working to coordinate green jobs training with actual new positions.

But, he acknowledged, there are going to be “more people trained than jobs available.”

“We haven’t been able to get everyone aligned with jobs and projects,” Fritz said. “We are working on that.”

The state also isn’t sure just what skills will be needed for jobs that do open up.

“On the job training side we are trying to anticipate what the opportunities will look like and that we will be ready for it,” said Richard Pearson, consultant with the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission. “We will have the training programs in place and the instructors in place. We want the talent pipeline for green jobs to be primed and ready to go, but it is not a science. A lot of stuff on the training side is anticipatory. It is chicken and eggs.”

Pearson said economic and policy conditions are a challenge for green job development.

“There is nobody at the table that doesn’t want to align the workforce training and development efforts with genuine job opportunities,” said Pearson. “The economy and policy environment are fluid. We can’t really influence that, but we try to be as smart as we can and we try to be as nimble as we can to calibrate the activity.”

Tom Burns, director of training for Northeast Utilities and co-chairman of the Connecticut Green Jobs Partnership, which is a committee of the Connecticut Employment and Training Commission, that the $760,000 of the $3.36 million State Energy Sector Partnership Grant set aside for a green jobs training will be used to train workers only as jobs come up in the clean energy field, whether that be wind or solar or fuel cells.

“We can respond to businesses in a region if someone does have jobs to design a workforce training program. It is not allocated at any one industry,” he said.

William Villano, executive director of Workforce Alliance in New Haven, said the alliance is overwhelmed with unemployed workers in need of immediate jobs.

“We have a lot of people who are exhausting unemployment benefits,” said Villano. “What we are looking for is jobs that are available now, and that in itself is a challenge. While those green jobs maybe good for the future, there are not necessarily a lot of jobs opportunities right now for those graduates.”

Villano said he met recently with a company in Wallingford that was gearing up to build nitrogen fueling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles.

“There are a lot of companies positioning themselves for the future, but it’s not pervasive. That kind of critical mass really hasn’t developed,” he said.

At Workplace in Bridgeport, program manger Olga Coleman-Williams said she is optimistic the group receiving green training will be able to find full-time work when they complete their certification programs. She said she is working on helping the trainees land internships with regional companies and place them in jobs once they complete their training.

Electrician Martinez is hoping to land a position at General Electric working on energy efficiency building automation.  Ouellet would like to work in the building deconstruction and waste reduction field. And Clark says he wants to become certified as a diesel mechanic which will include skills to retrofit cars for clean energy fuels. But with his unemployment benefits running out, he is concerned.

“It’s rough,” he said. “But you very much have to persevere.”