Oakland Nonprofit Trains Recent Vets in Solar Panel Installation

My second Eco Watch column for the Express was about a local organization called Swords to Plowshares and its new program that trains Iraq- and Afghanistan-era vets for jobs in solar panel installation.

"Swords to Solar Panels"
Local nonprofit introduces young veterans to the world of green technology.
By Nate Seltenrich
Brian Inami knew, at least ostensibly, what being green was all about. Living in San Francisco, he was familiar with the merits of recycling, composting, and turning off the lights when he left a room. Yet all the "green stuff" never quite sunk in; for him, it was background noise associated with living in an eco-friendly city, and not much more.
Everything changed when the thirty-year-old Marine Corps veteran enrolled in an eight-week course on solar panel installation at Oakland's Laney College. Designed and facilitated by local nonprofit veteran support organization Swords to Plowshares, the course taught the basics of photovoltaic system installation and provided a brief overview of the emerging green industry. Inami enrolled not because he was an environmentalist looking to prove a point, but because he was a hard worker looking for a new career.
"I wanted to get into an emerging industry," Inami recalled. So in mid-August he responded to a job post placed on Craigslist by Swords to Plowshares, which was rounding up Iraq and Afghanistan war vets for the inaugural class of its new green jobs training program. At the time, Inami was living and working in San Diego as an aquatics director for the YMCA, and was ready for a change. That's just what he found.
"The teacher said, 'How can you go into a green industry and not be green?'" said Inami. This time it stuck: "Now I realize it's gotta be a whole way of life." As a result of the class, he said, he's become receptive to how human behavior can affect the planet.
Newly equipped with a certification from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, representing entry-level knowledge of solar panel installation, Inami is prepared to take his training and newfound perspective into the field. He has continuously sent out résumés since the class ended in mid-December and has already had a couple interviews. If a job offer isn't immediately forthcoming, he said, he'll consider volunteering just to earn some critical hands-on experience. Ultimately, he's optimistic: "I see lots of potential growth in the future. I'm looking to build a career."
Swords to Plowshares' green training program was established by a Veterans' Workforce Integration Program federal grant providing $300,000 a year for three years. The organization, which was founded in 1974 and has offices in San Francisco and Oakland, was one of only seventeen recipients nationwide. Created under the Obama administration and funded through the US Department of Labor, the Veterans' Workforce Integration Program grant requires recipients to put veterans through a green training program that will lead directly to a job in the industry.
"Unless there's a job attached to the training, you're just buying time for unemployment," acknowledged Dave Lopez, Swords to Plowshares director of employment and training. So while developing the curriculum this summer, he met with members of builders' exchanges throughout the Bay Area to ensure that the training would meet their needs — and to earn their buy-in on the program. At the conclusion of each course, he joked, he could come back to them and say, "You told me to train them on this, so you'd better hire them."
Job placement notwithstanding, Lopez hopes to train eighty local vets in solar panel installation within the program's first year. In addition to Laney, San Jose City College and Diablo Valley College also have partnered with Swords to Plowshares; they, too, will host twenty vets for eight weeks at a time, providing an instructor, a classroom, parking, and textbooks at no cost to the students. San Jose's program begins in January and DVC's in February, while Laney will host a second class in March. All three schools also offer traditional green-career training programs, which were partly condensed to meet Swords to Plowshares' needs.
Within the inaugural Laney class, Inami was older and further removed from military service than many of his classmates. Most were under 28 and had served within the last two years. But he wasn't the only one unfamiliar with green tech. And more than half of the twenty students had little or no prior experience with electrical work. In the military, they were infantry, cooks, stockroom workers, and supply-chain specialists.
"A lot of them lack transferable skills," said green project coordinator Anthony Cordini. "That's the really tough part about it." Swords to Plowshares' training program was designed to remedy that, while providing an auxiliary introduction to environmentally sustainable practices that may have just as profound an effect.
It certainly did for Anthony Marinaccio of Concord, who separated from service as an Air Force fire truck mechanic based in Albuquerque in 2005. At the time, he had no idea what to do and took jobs in car sales and water damage restoration. This past summer, after being out of work for nine months, he responded to Swords to Plowshares' call for vets in hopes of learning a new trade. Now he considers himself a convert to clean technologies and says he's hooked on "going green." His latest discovery: homes made from recycled tires.
A new job has yet to materialize, but Marinaccio fosters high hopes of beginning as a solar panel installer and exploring the green industry from there. "It still is a small field, but growing at a rapid rate," he said. "The economy is still the economy. We still have some time, but I believe there's a job out there for everybody in the class."