Ex-criminals give lives solar power

A worker cleans an assembled solar panel

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: The White House hopes the money it is spending to promote sustainable energy will be good for the environment and the job market. Some people are hoping for a lot more than that. Reporter Caitlan Carroll at the Marketplace Sustainability Desk takes us to a Los Angeles program that's teaching people to install solar panel and to turn their lives around.


Caitlan Carroll: Albert Ortega stands in front of a class of about 20 men and women. Ortega's a big guy with tattoos.

Albert Ortega: You see that little cloud that sits over LA? The fog, the smog, all that stuff? That's air mass.

Like most of the students in the class, Ortega's an ex-gang member and convicted felon. He found out about solar panel work right after he finished serving time for selling drugs.

Ortega: I had just got out of prison and the guys at the re-entry program, some of them were enrolled in the solar panel class. So I got kind of curious, I wanted to know what it was about.

The East Los Angeles Skills Center runs the class. Ex-gang members filter into the course through an organization called Homeboy Industries. It's the largest gang-prevention program in the country.

Ortega liked designing solar panel systems, and he saw it as a way to support his family and stay out of prison.

Ortega: I wanted it badder than anything I ever wanted in my life before, you know?

On a weekday morning, the lobby of Homeboy Industries is packed with ex-gang members signing up for job training. The solar panel course is the newest offering, and it's full for the next few months.

Greg Boyle: It just tells you how eager people are. They see the handwriting on the wall. They think this actually could be a career.

That's Father Greg Boyle. He founded Homeboy industries a couple decades ago. Boyle says about a hundred people have been trained and are looking for jobs. But competition is tough right now. The job market's full of experienced installers -- who don't have criminal records.

Philippe Hartley is the General Manager of solar company Phat Energy. He could have hired anyone but chose to find workers at Homeboy Industries because of its mission.

Philippe Hartley: We don't want people to think that you have to come out of MIT to be able to install solar power. A well-trained individual can make as good a worker as a lifelong electrician.

Installers can make more than $20 an hour, and the public sector is beginning to hire. The city of Los Angeles has plans to retrofit some school and city buildings. In the meantime, guys like Ortega continue to train others in the trade.

Ortega: Father Greg's motto is jobs not jail, you know? And that's one of the biggest things that we're going to be able to produce with this solar panel class.

So even if the solar jobs aren't there yet, he says the possibility creates a ray of hope.

In Los Angeles, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace.

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