The promise of green jobs
Published 2:32 pm, Tuesday, February 15, 2011
BRIDGEPORT -- It broke Mike Cirillo's heart to tell his daughter that he wasn't going to get her a prom dress. His straight-A student deserved it, but he couldn't afford it.
The experienced union construction worker wants to work, but besides some small jobs, he hasn't been able to secure anything permanent for the past two years and is on the verge of losing his home.
But Cirillo -- and 499 other people in Bridgeport -- have been made a promise that has given them renewed hope. There are jobs out there for the taking, if they can go green.
Funded by a $4 million federal grant, Workplace Inc., Southwestern Connecticut's Regional Workforce Development Board, started enrolling students like Cirillo into its Green-Up Bridgeport program in February 2010. The program introduces students to emerging fields in green jobs -- fields already out there but which now have a green component, such as cleaning, building maintenance and landscaping.
More InformationEditor's note This is the first in a series of stories following students in a jobs training program who are pinning their hopes on new careers -- and new lives-- on the fledgling green industry.
The grant was part of a $150 million nationwide package from federal stimulus funds called "Pathways out of Poverty" that the Department of Labor distributed nationwide.
Green-Up pays for the courses the students need to get the proper certifications to qualify for those jobs, no matter the cost and assists students in finding a job.
Richard Williams, project director for Bridgeport's Green-Up, said the program has high expectations.
Within two years, at least 350 graduates of the program must have landed jobs and 275 of them must be employed for a minimum of 180 days. The Department of Labor does not stipulate any penalties if the program does not reach that goal.
Four hundred twenty-two students have gone through the Green-Up Bridgeport program so far. Forty-eight percent of the students have found a job, said Workplace, Inc. spokesman Denise Griffin. Of the first 12 people who signed up for the course, four of them are now employed, four are still in training, and four dropped out of the program. Some dropped out because they had to return to work as they could no longer afford to take time out to attend class.
Green-Up is targeted toward those most economically disadvantaged in Bridgeport. The students must come from the hardest hit neighborhoods in the city and they must either be an ex-offender, a high school dropout or unemployed. Most of the students in the training program are unemployed.
It all sounds promising, say advocates, but for the state to fulfill the promise to Cirillo and the other students, Connecticut will have to pass policy and legislation that supports these fledgling green industries.
This may not be easy.
Because of a lagging economy, job growth, even in the green fields, has been stagnant, said Bill Leahy, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Eastern Connecticut State University. Most of the jobs that are available were created with stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which are now used up.
"We're just starting to see some growth in construction, and some people are being hired in the transportation and building maintenance fields," Leahy said.
The state needs "to ramp up our efforts to meet the growing demand (for jobs)," said Eric Gribin, regional coordinator of the Sustainable Operations: Alternative and Renewable Energy Initiative, or SOAR Initiative.
That will only be achieved through government support and government incentives for those industries, he said.
That Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed an executive order in 2009 mandating 20 percent of Connecticut's energy come from renewable resources by 2020, indicates the state has those intentions.
But the state's budget deficits will most likely prevent the state from even expanding successful programs like the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, said David Downie, director of the Environment Program at Fairfield University.
As a whole, jobs programs don't have a great history of success, said Jon Baron, president of the Coalition for Evidence Based Policy, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. The U.S. has funneled more than $1 billion into the Job Corps since the 1960s, but studies have shown they haven't gotten people many jobs.
Similarly, the Job Training Partnership Act, created in the 1980s, had weak results for adults and no results or negative results for youths, Baron said.
Successful programs tend to have employers involved in designing the training program and also offer help on short-term job placement, Baron said.
Green-Up is aware of these issues, said Leahy. Experts such as himself were used to help design the Green-Up program and a subgroup of Workplace, Inc., did extensive research of which fields were most likely to be hiring by the time the students were ready to graduate from the program.
Downie said there are enough people thinking green in Fairfield County these days to support a growing industry.
As the economy recovers, he said they have the "means and the interest to make their homes more energy efficient, to consider a solar hot water heater, eat more organic produce, or shop at stores specializing in green products."
Whether their interests will be strong enough to drive sustained green job growth will be a function of culture and the economy, he said.
PROJECTS ON THE HORIZON
Despite the challenges to the growth of the green industry, Williams and others see real pragmatic opportunities.
Most of the emerging fields do not require extensive training, just certification courses that can be completed within a couple of semesters at a community college, Gribin said. At this moment, for example, someone with expertise in home weatherization could easily find a job in Connecticut, he said. Another advantage? Unlike traditional job fields, older people like Cirrillo, who have 20 years prior experience in a certain field, have a better chance of landing positions.
And there are projects on the horizon that will create green jobs, said Bridgeport Regional Business Council President Paul Timpanelli. One is a biomass facility near the city's West Side pumping station that would convert the city's waste into clean energy. The other is a green corporate park slated to be built near Lake Success. But neither of these projects are near fruition. The biomass plant is still in initial planning phases and it will take at least two more years to clean up the contaminated site where the corporate park is to be built.
FIRST DAY OF CLASS
Despite these issues, the students filling the classrooms are hopeful
A new batch of 16 students attended their first class at the University of Bridgeport on Monday, Jan. 24. Art Riley, their teacher, -- one of four trades teachers with the program -- started with the basics. During the trainees first week, he explained what volts and amps are and he talked about what jobs are available in the energy industry.
"Foreign oil is a monkey we've got to get off our backs," Riley said to the students. "And we've got to build an infrastructure of renewable energy."
He told the students about new bricks that have Styrofoam inside them, making it easier to insulate buildings. He talked about solar panels, and how easily snow and rain slide off them.
"Eventually everybody will have to go solar," mused one student.
Over the next four weeks, the students will learn about all the green jobs available to them in four fields: energy, resource management, electric cars and mass transportation, and carpentry.
In class, student Weldon Merritt, who is a member of the Local 79 in New York City, passed around his OSHA burning permit, fire watcher permit, welding permit, and other credentials. His classmates handled the permits with awe. Merritt plans to get his Building Performance Institute credentials through the program so that when he turns 50 in three years, he'll be able to take a managerial role and retire from physical labor. He also owns some property in Bridgeport he plans to convert to sustainable buildings and resell.
"My next job is definitely going to be a green job," said another student, David Yearwood, 37, who was laid off from an exporting job in Shelton. The only jobs available at his current skill level pay about $9 an hour, he said. This is not nearly enough for him to pay his mortgage.
"Green is the way the world is heading," Yearwood said. "You have to take advantage of it now."
RONALD PATTON: FROM WIRED TO WIRING
Ronald Patton was one of the first to arrive to class on Monday morning. He took a seat in the middle of the room, opened up his notebook, and held his number two pencil in anticipation. He nodded his head in rapt attention as the teacher spoke. The 54-year-old has a background in electrical work, a profession he takes seriously.
"My father would say you have people's lives in your hands," Patton said. "Electricity is no joke. You can't take shortcuts."
Although Patton is capable of complicated wiring jobs, he can only take on limited work because he does not have the official certifications. Patton grew up in Savannah, Georgia, where discrimination from the "Good Old Boys Network" in the deep south prevented him from advancing, he said. Patton worked non-stop, and never had time to attend school.
He also developed a cocaine addiction, and his days consisted of going to work and then coming home to do drugs. He says the addiction did not impact his work, but when his family became increasingly worried he decided to get clean -- an effort that took him to rehab programs in New York and Pennsylvania.
Patton has been clean for more than three years and now lives at Pivot Ministries Crisis Center in Bridgeport, where he counsels other addicts. Since moving to Bridgeport, Patton has become immersed in his faith. He's become known around town as "the preacher man."
The young men who come in are high on drugs and drunk on alcohol, Patton said.
"I hand them a bible," Patton said. "I say, let's read."
He performs odd jobs for people in town, which brings in a small income. But with a license, he would be legally allowed to take on bigger jobs.
He hopes he'll be able to pay it forward and employ some of the men from the ministry.
Patton is interested in earning the proper certifications to become a building maintenance manager or a solar panel installer.
Designing a house to maximize efficiency is new to Patton, who has spent a career working with traditional homes. His technology skills are limited.
"Before people will even talk to me, they want me to e-mail them my resume," Patton said. "If they just looked at me instead, if they saw my hands, they'd see that I've worked."
Patton has pushed back the day he expects to retire to 72, but two more decades of work don't daunt him.
"I'm geared up for it," Patton said. "I know what I want."
Sam Bonacci: Another chance
Sam Bonacci, 27, is the talkative one. He's constantly raising his hand in class to ask a question or interrupting the lesson with a comment.
A few years ago, Bonacci was not so outgoing. He would sit in night school, afraid to ask any questions at all. He dropped out of high school freshman year, embarrassed to ask questions about what everyone else seemed to know already.
Bonacci was an honor role student at Read School, but when he entered Center High School, he "hooked up with the wrong crowd" and started skipping. Also, his father was serving jail time and his mother was using drugs and his family needed money. So when he turned 16, he dropped out and got a job as a dishwasher at a local diner.
Bonacci worked his way up to head cook, but the restaurant owner had to close. Then he started cleaning restaurant stove hoods, but that work eventually fizzled out as well.
The 27-year-old has been working different jobs since he was 16, but he is ready for a career. He wants to make enough money to care for his two disabled parents, and wants to have a family of his own.
"I've seen people working in the hood cleaning industry for 20 years and they're still struggling," Bonacci said. "I want to find something I could do for the rest of my life."
Bonacci's father, who is a diabetic, had a stoke about two years ago, motivating Bonacci to go into the health field. He earned his certified nurse assistant degree. He graduated second in his class.
Yet when it came time to find work, employers kept turning him down because of a misdemeanor he got 10 years ago for getting into a fight with his older brother.
Two years ago, Bonacci's older brother went through the CTWorks program and earned his asbestos removal certification. Since then, he has had steady work, has bought a house in Norwalk, and has two cars.
When Bonacci heard about the Green-Up program, he signed up and convinced his younger brother Ben, 24, to join him.
"I'm trying to tell him mistakes I made," Bonacci said. "He's younger than me and if he jumps on this, he's a step better off than me."
Bonacci is out of options. He has to get a green job. He's interested in becoming a diesel mechanic or a sustainable building manager. But both those jobs require two-year degrees, and he doesn't have the time. So instead, he'll follow in his older brother's foot steps and get his OSHA and asbestos removal certifications.
He's also working on getting a pardon to clear his record. That requires a slew of paperwork and recommendations, and then he has to go before a panel to argue his case.
"I just want to be able to work a job and be a good citizen and have a family," Bonacci said. "I want to have kids and provide for them. I want what anybody would want."