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Continued: Green jobs to the rescue?

  • Article by: DON JACOBSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 29, 2010 - 6:39 PM

The recession has been hard on Minnesota's construction industry. Since July 2005, the construction workforce has shrunk by one-third -- a staggering loss of 48,000 jobs, according to state officials.

Now they're pinning hopes on the renewable energy sector to pick up some of the slack, and while such projects continue to be built, that sector, too, has been affected by a slowdown.

Two major Twin Cities-based construction employers -- Mortenson and Kraus-Anderson -- are among those working on renewable energy-related projects providing much-needed jobs in a bleak employment landscape. Meanwhile, an array of other companies are using state grants to train workers for the green jobs of the future.

Just how many construction workers are being employed for green projects isn't precisely known, partly because the definition of "green" is malleable. It's a subjective measurement, but the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is taking a shot at getting a handle on it through a study funded by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Using its existing jobs vacancy survey and following up with additional questions about "green" jobs, DEED imposed relatively restrictive criteria on the "greenness" of the positions and found in preliminary results that there were 488 such openings in Minnesota in March, representing about 1.8 percent of all job vacancies.

The study's authors noted that more than one-third of them were in the environmental remediation and cleanup sector. They also found fewer green construction industry job openings than they had expected. Part of the reason may have been that the survey was conducted in the seasonally slow winter months, but the devastating effects of the recession were also blamed.

The potential for new construction jobs in Minnesota's renewable energy sector is a mixed bag, concluded an analysis performed in June for the Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace, a private-public partnership set up to train workers and encourage job creation in the green space.

The study by GSP Consulting of Pittsburgh predicted that overall jobs in the state's renewable energy sector will increase from an estimated 59,600 in 2009 to more than 64,100 by 2016, partly because of a jump in demand for wind turbines. But on the construction side, it warned that gains from the building of new wind farms will likely be offset by a dropoff in demand for "large, centralized power generation facilities" -- traditional power plants whose construction have provided many jobs in the past.

Even so, new wind power projects are, at the very least, giving a few hard-hit workers paychecks. How many? It depends on the size of the effort. The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, for instance, estimated that the 240 megawatts of wind power projects built in Iowa in the late 1990s provided 200 short-term construction jobs and 40 long-term positions.

Mortenson Construction has emerged as a major player in the wind power space and has 800 megawatts' worth of projects ongoing in North America, including 17 projects in Minnesota. At its peak several years ago, the wind projects it was involved with employed about 1,900 construction workers either directly or as subcontractors.

The promise of green technologies is still there, said Tom Wacker, head of Mortenson's Renewable Energy Group, adding that his group accounts for 20 to 25 percent of Mortenson's roughly $2 billion in revenue.

But, he added, "Although there has been a lot of talk about how wind is providing a ray of hope for the construction industry, the truth is that by year's end, it will be down 25 to 40 percent. People think it's a great market, but it's struggling like other markets."

Wacker blamed the lack of a national renewable energy standard, such as those in the energy bill that collapsed in the U.S. Senate this month, for a continuous up-and-down demand cycle for renewables.

Kraus-Anderson, meanwhile, is working on a renewable energy project in Mountain Iron, where it was chosen to build a $3.6 million manufacturing facility for Marysville, Wash.-based Silicon Energy, a maker of solar energy panels. The new facility is being built in the Mountain Iron Renewable Energy Park, a former taconite mining tailings dump site.

K-A is also taking part in efforts to train new workers for the green construction jobs of the future -- earlier this year, it participated in an effort with the Anoka County Job Training Center, Anoka Technical College and Anoka-Ramsey Community College to train students in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) sustainable construction.

Teresa Kittridge, executive director of Minnesota Renewable Energy Marketplace, administers federal grants initiated by the Governor's Workforce Development Council, many of which go to workforce training in the green jobs fields. She said such training efforts are important, but cautions the economy needs to improve for employers to add even highly trained job candidates.

"I think that there are a lot of training opportunities for green construction jobs, but the placement side of it, that's something that people are still working on," she said. She noted Kraus-Anderson is training workers on energy efficiency, while the city of St. Paul has a grant to train people on enforcing its green-centric building codes.

But, she said, "While there's a lot of pieces around and a lot of good things coming down the road with energy efficiency and renewable energy, we still need the placements."

Don Jacobson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.

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