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Apprentices Prep For Green Jobs In Imperial Valley

Aired 9/19/11 on KPBS News.

Green Jobs In Imperal Valley

— On a typically scorching summer morning in El Centro, California, Pedro Bernal and Jonathan Escoto were putting the finishing touches on a 450-kW solar project at the Imperial Valley Office of Education. The pair are first-year electrical apprentices in a training program run jointly by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

It’s one of the few such programs designed to prepare Imperial Valley workers for skilled, well-paying jobs in the area’s budding renewable energy industry.

The valley has vast potential to generate solar, geothermal, wind and biomass energy. With it could come an estimated 20,000 jobs during the construction phase, and ultimately thousands of permanent jobs for the region’s residents, according to Tim Kelley, president of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation.

The current unemployment rate here is 32 percent, according to the latest numbers from the California Economic Development Department — higher than anywhere else in the country.

Pedro Bernal (left) and Jonathan Escoto (right) work on their first job as part of the IBEW apprenticeship program.
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Above: Pedro Bernal (left) and Jonathan Escoto (right) work on their first job as part of the IBEW apprenticeship program.

Thus far, the hoped-for renewable energy boom has been more like a sputter. Many projects have been delayed or abandoned completely. But now, work has finally begun on some.

One geothermal plant and one solar plant are currently under construction, and companies hope to break ground on several more projects by the end of the year. Overall, about 36 renewable energy projects are in the development pipeline, according to Kelley.

The companies behind those projects will need skilled workers with experience in renewable energy. That's where training programs come in, like the one Bernal is enrolled in.

Danny Machain, who helps run the program for the IBEW, gave a presentation to a group of about a dozen potential applicants at a training center in the city of Imperial. Under the program, Machain told the group, apprentices work under a contractor during the daytime and take classes two nights a week at the center.

This fall’s incoming class of apprentices is the largest yet at 15 people. Bernal, who is one of the freshman, said he's happy to be done bouncing around between low-wage jobs. First-year apprentices make $14.65 an hour plus pension benefits, health care for them and their families, and a free education. Wages go up every year after that, reaching around $36 an hour for a fully licensed electrical worker.

“This is the most high-paying job I’ve had," Bernal said. "And I’ve been working since I was 18 and I’m 24 now. So yeah, this is definitely going to be a career."

Job prospects are looking better for these apprentices than they have in a number of years. Ramon Castro is in his final semester of the program.

“When I first came in, we had some work, but it was always iffy if we were going to get onto another project," Castro said. "And now these guys are getting picked up, and it’s mainly the big rush out here to catch the solar power."

Castro said he felt confident about his job prospects after he graduates from the program this winter.

"I know I’m going to be employed,” he said. “I mean not 100 percent, not for sure, but I feel confident.”

Solar panels will power the buildings of the Imperial Valley Office of Education in El Centro.
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Above: Solar panels will power the buildings of the Imperial Valley Office of Education in El Centro.

Of course, most of the jobs expected to come with new green energy projects will only last during the construction phase — generally a period of one to five years. After that, workers have to hope another construction boom will take its place, either in the Imperial Valley, or nearby. That's just the nature of the business, Machain said.

“We’re a construction local. That’s what we’re trained for — to basically go out to a job and work ourselves out of the job,” he said.

For now, construction workers here just hope to ride the rising renewable energy wave as long as they can.

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