Solar energy wasn’t top of mind for Thaddeus Skiles in 2010 when he walked into the offices of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles non-profit that helps former gang members and ex-felons get back on their feet.
The eighth-grade dropout just wanted to get his life, derailed by drugs and multiple jail sentences, back on track.
“I had just got out of prison, I had no driver’s license and a lot of financial difficulties,” recalled Skiles, now 36. “I didn’t have a lot of options.”
As it turned out, he had stumbled into a burgeoning, if unusual, program that paired eager-to-work ex-convicts with a “green” industry that needed skilled workers to meet a growing demand for renewable energy sources.
Skiles learned that Homeboy would cover his expenses to go through a four-month photovoltaic training program at a public vocational school in east Los Angeles. If he graduated, he would be a certified solar energy technician and Homeboy would try to help him land a job in the solar industry.
“I jumped at the chance,” he said.
The renewable energy industry and ex-gang members may seem like an odd match, but Homeboy’s founder, Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, says the intensity of the solar program and confidence it instills in its graduates has helped drive its growth. After a rocky start, stemming from apprehension about hiring workers with a criminal past, employers eventually became more willing to ignore the tattoos and sometimesintimidating appearances of potential workers and focus more on their specific skills and enthusiasm levels.
"Initially, the demand wasn't there. That was a problem," Boyle said. But as the need for skilled workers grew, he said, access to a pool of highly trained people often trumped any concerns about hiring someone with a record.
It also helps that the solar power industry is one of the country’s fastest-growing industrial sectors. By the end of the decade, solar energy could become cheaper than conventional electricity in many parts of the country, and the continued growth of the industry could create hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 2009, there were 93,500 solar workers in the U.S.; that number is expected to grow to nearly 140,000 in 2013, according to data from the National Solar Foundation.
Homeboy began in the mid-1980s when Boyle, as pastor of Delores Mission Catholic Church, opened a school and launched a jobs program in the middle of a gang-saturated neighborhood. It is now the largest gang intervention program in the country, funded mostly by private foundations, individual and corporate donations and government grants.
It draws about 12,000 men and women a year to its mental health counseling, tattoo removal, job placement and life skills services. Its businesses include several cafés and a bakery that sells breads and pastries at farmers’ markets and grocery stores. Many of its employees--from the bakers who rise at dawn to knead the dough, to the silkscreeners who customize T-shirts for schools--have just been released from jail or are trying to detach themselves from gangs.
The solar program is one of its newest businesses, and some say, perhaps its most complicated.
Philippe Hartley, general manager of Phat Energy in La Crescenta, Calif., started hiring Homeboy graduates not long after his company opened 2007. He estimates that 15 percent of all of his installations are done by Homeboy teams. "We trust them as a source," he said.
But it's not always easy. The solar industry "involves dangerous disciplines such as being on high unstable places and handling electricity," he said. "It's a challenging business to manage and that's what we teach to these graduates."
Classroom Work Builds Confidence
At the East L.A. Skills Center, students in the photovoltaic program, more than half from Homeboy, gather four days a week in windowless classrooms. Instructors like Edward Ruiz show them how to measure the area and angles of a roof and perform intricate electrical circuitry work.
Ruiz said he sees many of the students change during the course of the program from dour and insecure to confident citizens.
"I see men come from really a point where they’re institutionalized to the point where they’re functioning and become taxpayers," Ruiz said. "They’re no longer a drain. It’s incredible to watch, the world of good that’s being done with this program. I can see the impact, the ripple effect it's having."