Laid Off Auto Workers Learn to Install Solar Panels

More than 740,000 people are actively looking for work in June, as Michigan's unemployment rate hit 15.2%.

In a crowded classroom at Henry Ford Community College, laid off auto workers are learning how to install and manage solar panels. The class is part of a new alternative energy technology program the college created to help retrain the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the collapse of the auto industry.

"Everybody is scrambling," said Linda West, director of workforce development at the suburban Detroit college. Money is tight. Enrollment is up. But the hardest part is trying to figure out what kind of training to provide so those people "can have a hope of getting a job," West said.

Sean Peppers, 37, has spent nearly two decades working in auto supplier plants but has not been called for a single interview since he was laid off from his engineering job in January. He hopes the alternative energy degree will help him find work at a plant building parts for wind turbines, or solar panels, or anything that is not a car. "I was trying to get out of automotive before I was kicked out of automotive. You could see the writing on the wall," Peppers said. "But there's not a whole lot of options when your experience is totally for automotive."

Most of the 65 students taking the alternative energy classes are getting their tuition paid through an state program which provides scholarships to Michigan residents who are unemployed or earning less than $40,000 a year. They are the lucky ones.

The two year-old No Worker Left Behind program has so far helped retrain around 78,000 people. There were more than 740,000 actively looking for work in June, as Michigan's unemployment rate hit 15.2%.

The state recently extended unemployment benefits to 79 weeks because so many people have been out of work for so long.

In the past ten years, Michigan has lost half its manufacturing jobs as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler saw their share of U.S. auto sales slide from 70% to 45%.

"We feel like the guy who made horseshoes when the Model T (Ford) came out," said student Brandon VanPoppelen. VanPoppelen, 32, was laid off from three different jobs in four years after the housing market boom went bust. He is hoping the certificate program will help him make the switch from selling construction materials to doing energy efficiency consulting or installation. But he is worried about the guys he knows who were happy framing a house or making $15 or $20 an hour in a factory, who do not know how to do anything but work with their hands. Now, he says, their only options seem to be working for minimum wage in soul-crushing jobs like manning a fast-food drive-through window. "It's emasculating," he said. They cannot provide for their families and they cannot see a way out. So they get frustrated. And they drink.

"What do they want us to do? I'll be fine, but not everybody can be an engineer," VanPoppelen said. "There's got to be middle class manual work."

The state has "multiple strategies" for retraining its workforce, drawing new employers and diversifying its economy, said Andy Levin, deputy director for Michigan's department of energy, labor, and economic growth.

Green jobs are a major focus of the state's outreach program as it tries to capitalize on its strengths in advanced manufacturing and chemical engineering.

The state is also working with employers to design programs to train workers to fill specific needs and have revised its adult education programs to ensure that literacy and language skill training is job-oriented.

The state's resources are too thin to extend training to everyone who wants it and to help community colleges develop new curriculums. And a lot of the people who used to make a good income working with their hands will simply have to adjust to earning a lot less. "The biggest plurality of jobs are going to be service sector jobs, which are low wage," Levin said. Unless, he said, unions manage to do for service workers what they did for auto workers so many years ago.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009

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