Jon Ruth practiced building solar hot water systems and installing solar roof panels during two weeklong classes at Wake Technical Community College last month.
Ruth, who earned an MBA from Appalachian State University in December, was honing his skills before starting a 10-week internship in project management at Strata Solar, a solar energy developer in Chapel Hill. He worked previously in sustainable energy jobs before pursuing his master's.
"I've been looking for a job since December, but it's hard out there," said Ruth, 32. He hopes knowing how to install solar panels and build solar water heating units will help when he finds a management job in the industry.
No one really knows how many so-called "green jobs" are available, but colleges and universities in the area are in a race to train the local workforce in the budding sector. Green jobs are loosely defined: Many agree they must improve or conserve the environment while helping the economy.
Spurring more green jobs has been at the center of President Barack Obama's economic agenda. Obama praised Durham-based Cree last month for leading a clean energy revolution and helping boost manufacturing during his visit to the Cree factory that makes energy efficient lighting products. His administration has committed billions of dollars in stimulus money in an effort to boost hiring in the industry.
Green jobs may also include organic farming, retrofitting buildings to reduce water and energy, and waste reduction. The Triangle has expanded in so-called smart grid technology, which uses computerized meters to regulate power use.
The increasing demand represents potential opportunity for job seekers at a time when unemployment remains high and many companies are reluctant to hire.
Wake County leads the state in green jobs, according to data from the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association. The number of green jobs statewide increased by 22 percent in 2010 to 12,500 positions, according to the survey. The Bureau of Labor Statistics hopes to have green jobs analysis available next year as part of its monthly reporting on the workforce.
"We're making really good progress," said Maria Kingery, co-founder of Southern Energy Management, an energy efficiency and solar power company in Morrisville. "I see good activity at the community colleges that indicates we're building a strong foundation to be able to ramp up green jobs in the future."
After the classes in solar thermal and solar panel installation, known as Solar Photovoltaic, Wake Tech will offer two more classes in solar plumbing and sustainable landscaping in September. The college is teaming with the City of Raleigh to offer the classes as part of its green building training program, which is paid for through the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant.
Landscape students will learn ways to reuse water while maintaining a beautiful landscape, and plumbing students will learn about different piping and using less water and fewer chemicals.
The recent Wake Tech solar classes will help Ruth and other students prepare for an exam by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), which qualifies them to install solar panels nationwide.
Creating their jobs
Not all students will take the certification test; many are just acquiring new skills. About half of those in the Wake Tech classes already work for themselves or small companies and want to increase their training, instructors said.
"The industry is so new, people can create their own jobs," said Sam Strickland, senior vice president of continuing education at Wake Tech. "Generally, the classes are full because people are interested in the new frontier."
Steve Frasher, a traditional builder, has broken into the industry with his new company NC Green Build, building a single-family house in Durham to meet the strict certification program of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). He subcontracted with green plumbing and heating companies.
The home has fewer wood studs to make more room for insulation, ductwork through air-conditioned spaces rather than through a 100-degree attic, and a central water heater that has shorter distance to travel to appliances.
The house, located at 208 Regiment Way, is 2,615 square feet and is listed at $320,000. Frasher and his business partner Duncan Lundy tried to keep the price in line with the other traditional homes in the area while offering a way to save long-term on energy and replacement costs.
Although expenses of recycled and energy efficient features are sometimes high, homeowners who consider green options in the design phase of the house can save considerably. It is harder and more expensive to retrofit a house with features that conserve energy and water.
"If buyers can be educated, they realize they'll have fewer problems down the road," Frasher said. "They can feel good about things. It's just good building."
Supporters of the industry in North Carolina say hiring for solar jobs has slowed because of a bill that did not get approved in the legislature this year. The bill would have doubled the amount of solar power utilities must sell in the state and limited the number of solar energy credits that utilities can buy from outside the state.
The bill, called the "Solar Jobs Act," was expected to add about 4,000 solar energy jobs in the state if it had passed.
"One of the key components is policy alignment," said Southern Energy Management's Kingery, who co-founded the company in 2001 with her husband. "We need to be consistent in investment we're making to get the greatest success."
Colleges leading the way
Kingery said the community colleges are meeting the needs to train workers for green jobs in solar, thermal as well as agriculture and transportation.
Central Carolina Community College, with facilities in Lee, Harnett and Chatham counties, has been a leader in sustainable agriculture program since 1996. Now Chatham County, where the community college has a campus in Pittsboro, is one of the only counties adding farmers, said Laura Lauffer, green building and sustainability coordinator at the college.
And as the community college continues adding continuing education classes, degreed programs follow. Three years ago, it began offering a biofuels degree, Lauffer said. The school is modeling what it is teaching with a LEED certified facility and two electric car charging stations.
"It's a living lab," Lauffer said. "It's not just what we teach, it's what we do."
Workers expect to see more incentives and state policies in the future regarding renewable energy and energy efficiency. They're trying to make sure they're ready.
Quintin Munn, whose company, QM Enterprises, does commercial contracting, took both classes at Wake Tech in June. He has leads on a couple of projects and hopes to be installing solar heat by the end of the year.
"The laws are going to dictate that we go in that direction, and I just want to get on the front end of it," Munn said. "If we don't reuse some of the resources we have, we're only hurting ourselves and our environment."