Home From Iraq, Veterans Seen as Perfect Candidates for Green Jobs

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Thousands of veterans are entering the job market, and many are finding opportunities in the green industry, from leadership to service

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When Navy veteran Harold Coleman went green it turned his life around. The 41-year-old general contractor was homeless just two years ago. Then he came across a local program that helps veterans re-enter the job-market by providing financial support and access to certification classes. Coleman now owns a business that retrofits homes to increase energy efficiency and decrease utility bills. He attributes his success in this industry to skills he learned 20 years ago in the Navy.

Coleman said his company -- North Star Development, LLC, based in St. Louis -- will be hiring dozens of people this year, and he sees veterans as the perfect candidates for green building positions. As a prime example, he recalls a retired master sergeant with no residential construction experience he recently hired.

"She was able to complete a training program that a lot of science-type people don't successfully complete," he said. "Her dedication, her discipline, her strength in getting to the task, I'm sure she got that as a result of 25 years in the United States Air Force." And now, Coleman said, "She is completely dedicated to the green jobs initiative."

The military is "the strongest force in the U.S. government right now working on renewable energy and energy efficiency."

As the United States withdraws all remaining troops from Iraq this month, thousands of veterans are entering the job market, and many are finding opportunities in the green industry -- from manufacturing to leadership to service.

Despite the 8.6 percent unemployment rate, the U.S. has a labor shortage in skilled technical manufacturing, said Kate Gordon, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, "and it's exciting that there are people coming back who may have some of those skills who can help fill that void." Businesses like Coleman's, which retrofit houses for better energy efficiency and lower utility bills, are an area of opportunity because they use many American-manufactured materials, she said.

Manufacturing comprises 26 percent of the green economy, compared with just nine percent of the broader economy, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution, the non-profit Washington think tank. And Jobs in manufacturing can be perfect for military personnel because of the technical skills they develop, which aren't widely available in the U.S. today.

The military is "the strongest force in the U.S. government right now working on renewable energy and energy efficiency," according to Rona Fried, president of sustainablebusiness.com. "They've reduced their energy demand on the bases by implementing pretty standard -- and some innovative -- energy efficient changes," she said, "like converting your basic barrack, which has absolutely no insulation."

Job growth in the so-called green economy has moved faster than in any other sector during the recession. Military personnel have the right skills for a wide variety of positions. But nobody's saying the jobs are plentiful -- the U.S. still has a jobs crisis in many areas of the economy.

This is a field of great potential, but without more public and private support the potential won't be realized, said Sarah White, a senior associate at the Center on Wisconsin Strategy who focuses on sustainable workforce strategies. "The promise of the renewable economy is there, but the jobs have not been created yet," White said. "There is not a full bucket of green jobs just waiting for them (veterans) to transition into."

Since veterans often have applicable skills, and access to services like the St. Louis-based St. Patrick Center that helped Harold Coleman, the jobs that do exist are within reach. Also, President Barack Obama last month signed into law a bill that provides tax credits to companies hiring veterans.

Bradley-Morris, Inc., which claims to be the largest military placement firm in the U.S., has helped veterans find jobs across the spectrum of the green industry. The Georgia-based firm has seen high levels of interest in positions related to manufacturing, management, and service within the clean energy industry -- on the side of the veteran job seekers as well as employers, according to company spokesman Bill Scott.

Scott also pointed out that energy jobs that aren't considered green are increasingly available to veterans as well. "There's a huge amount of potential roles in the energy grid," he said. "And that's anything from these green technologies to traditional oil and gas."

When Solyndra, an energy company that received a $535 million federal loan and was a darling of the Obama administration, folded last month, it was a major bump in the road for all things green.

Obama said in 2010 that the company, which makes solar panels, was "leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future," but controversy swirled around how early the administration knew the company was in trouble as it continued to approve government-backed loans.

The Solyndra issue will certainly impact the discussion in Washington and perhaps the industry's funding, said Gordon of the Center for American Progress, but not the enthusiasm of green job seekers.

The way Harold Coleman sees it, it's a thriving industry that puts his military skills to use. But it's also a way to continue defending America. "In the defense of our country we can use guns and bullets," he said. But "we can also use energy conservation to reduce our dependence on foreign fuels."

Image: Denis Balibouse/Reuters.

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Austin B. Smith is a reporter for the Medill News Service in Washington, D.C., covering national security issues and transportation.

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