RichmondBUILD boosts local green industry, but can’t carry economy

At 19 years old, Lela Turner found herself homeless, jobless and struggling.

Two years earlier, the San Leandro High School graduate had tried working part-time at McDonald’s and attending Chabot Community College in Hayward. But an unstable family life and unforeseen expenses soon put Turner out on the street with no place to go — until her caseworker told her about RichmondBUILD.

The RichmondBUILD Pre-apprenticeship Construction Skills and Green Jobs Training Academy allows Richmond residents to obtain skills like solar installation and carpentry in a 16-week program, helping graduates find work in the local green industry.

As a little girl, Turner had helped build the fence surrounding her backyard and restore the carpet in her family’s home. A self-proclaimed kinesthetic-oriented person, Turner decided to try out the RichmondBUILD program, which is free for Richmond residents.

Lela Turner, 20, got a job as a solar installer because of her training at RichmondBUILD.

Four months later, she graduated — with a job.

Now 20, Turner lives in a transitional house, works as a solar installer-in-training at Ally Electric and Solar in Richmond and has a 10-year plan for starting her own solar business. She’s one of the faces of the green jobs program at RichmondBUILD, a success story in the midst of the recession.

But Turner’s is only one story, and experts say that’s the problem with the promise of the green economy: it’s limited, often offering only short-term work and just not big enough to make a substantial dent in the overall unemployment picture.

The current unemployment rate in Richmond is 16.9 percent, according to the Employment Development Department. That’s down, slightly, from 2010, when it was 17.9 percent.

According to a report commissioned by the City of Richmond last year, Richmond had 1,837 green jobs in 2010, including 683 in renewable energy, out of a total of 44,000 jobs.

“I believe in [RichmondBUILD], but the number of placements they have is miniscule,” said Karen Chapple, a UC Berkeley Professor who helped develop the strategy to improve Richmond’s “green economy” in 2010. Turner’s employer, Ally Electronics, employs 13 people.

RichmondBUILD would be better off training Richmond youth for non-green jobs as electricians or plumbers, Chapple said.

RichmondBUILD director Sal Vaca said that there has been an upswing of up to 25 percent of program graduates getting work in the green industry. He’s optimistic about the city’s practices to reach out to clean industry employers. “We have strong policies that encourage the hiring of local residents with local businesses,” Vaca said.

Most RichmondBUILD graduates who have held a job from November 2009 until present have worked in general construction.

Of the 221 students who graduated from RichmondBUILD in the past year, 162 were placed in local jobs from 2010-2011, most in either general construction or energy efficiency. But construction jobs tend to be transient, and the majority of those jobs were only short-term projects, lasting two or three months at most. Turner is one of the lucky ones — she’s been with Ally since April.

“I’m a skeptic,” said Dr. Christopher Thornberg of the economic forecasting group Beacon Economics, in a speech at Richmond’s Economic Summit 2011 last week. “There’s no such thing as a ‘green job.’ There’s just greener jobs.

“The process has to integrate into the normal workforce — take existing jobs and retain those folks to do green work,” Thornberg said of boosting the local economy. “Jobs are going to come from the same sectors they’ve been coming from for years. Green is important, but it’s not a cure-all.”

The RichmondBUILD graduates’ average hourly wage is $18.32. Of the placements, most are in Richmond, and the largest number are in the Iron Triangle neighborhood. Fifteen graduates from last year’s class work in the solar industry. Twenty-four have jobs in energy efficiency and the largest number, 39, work in general construction — a fickle industry usually requiring job after job without the promise of a weekly paycheck.

A completed house in the RichmondBUILD warehouse, where students practical electrical wiring, solar installation and more.

For Andrew Flores, the director of operations of the solar division at Ally Electronics and Turner’s boss, the solar industry is new and promising. “It feels good to know that we’re hiring somebody who went through a Richmond program,” Flores said of Turner. “As a Richmond-based company, we’re trying to help other Richmond companies exceed their goals.”

Flores supervises canvassers who spread the word about the new Richmond Recovery Solar Rebate, which provides Richmond families with the opportunity to purchase affordable solar systems for their homes.

Solar is a viable industry, Vaca said, although he said that with a challenging economy, residents need incentives to “go solar.”

“We need to pass federal and state and local policy that provides the incentives for the average homeowner and business to take advantage of using renewable sources of energy,” he said.

Since Turner’s backyard fence-building days, RichmondBUILD has allowed her to get certified in solar installation, home energy efficiency, lead abatement, asbestos removal and HAZWOPER — Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response.

And while it might be on a smaller-scale, Turner said she loves her job at Ally, which pays $10 an hour and allows her to earn about $1,000 a month. She credits RichmondBUILD with getting her back on her feet.

Turner, whose enthusiasm for the trade is spelled in smiles, found a particular need to outshine her fellow students, most of whom were male. “Being a female, and an African-American female, was hard,” she said. “I had to shine.” She soon got over her fear of falling off scaffolding during the program’s agility test, in which students run laps around the building and up scaffolding with buckets of nails.

In the final stage of the program, students build a one-bedroom house with electricity installed — and then they tear it down. This allows them to practice proper demolition, as well as construction.

Many students of the RichmondBUILD program are ex-convicts, former prisoners and people who have never held a steady job. All are shown the basics of construction and are assisted with job placements. “If you shine in class, they will help you,” Turner said. “They show a lot of love there.”

Students at RichmondBUILD practice constructing a home in the program's warehouse.

Turner still visits RichmondBUILD on the corner of Barrett and 23rd Street. Sitting in the warehouse next to a model home not unlike the one she built as a student five months ago, her heart-shaped rock jewelry dangling from her ears as she leaned forward excitedly, Turner talked about how RichmondBUILD helped her do what she loves.

“I’m a tough kinda girl,” she said. “I love working with my hands.

“I like to get outside, walk around, feel the breeze…work with the elements,” she added. “I don’t want to be rich, I just want to have enough to survive.”

Turner has a dream to one day build her own house from the ground up, somewhere in spacious farm country in central California. “I’m going to build a nice little mini mansion,” she said, hands clasped and gaze intent. “It’s the best thing to pass down, to leave for my family — a house that’s paid for, that’s filled with love.”

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