Jobs: A Matter of Degrees

The old Frankford Arsenal is now home to solar panel installation training
by Tim McCullough

A warehouse sits along the banks of Old Frankford Creek, in the Bridesburg section of Northeast Philadelphia. For a century and a half it was part of the Frankford Arsenal, manufacturing ammunition and weapons parts for the military. Opened in 1816, the Arsenal was a linchpin of Philadelphia’s economy for generations, providing muskets during the Battle of Gettysburg and ammunition for both world wars. But, by the late ’70s, the Arsenal wasn’t producing much anymore. Once a huge employer in the region, it was swept up in the tide that carried away most of Philadelphia’s manufacturing jobs. In 1977, the Arsenal closed.

But that wasn’t the end of the story for this historic landmark. Today, the complex houses two charter schools and various small businesses, and, in one particular warehouse by the creek, students are learning how to install solar panels.

The PV installation training class is run by the Maxwell Education Group. (PV is short for photovoltaics, a technical name for cells used to gather energy from the sun.) A small company that’s been doing various workforce development and welfare-to-work programs since 1998, Maxwell has received a federal grant to train unemployed city residents for jobs in the burgeoning green economy—and they’re starting with solar panels.

In the classroom, a group of students sit in second-hand chairs taking notes. The lecturer explains photovoltaic wiring practices, electrical load analysis techniques and other technical details of the solar energy industry. To their right are several rows of out-of-service solar panels, about 15 altogether. The students will get plenty of hands-on experience, but time in the classroom is also an important part of their training. The program is intensive—requiring 300 hours over 8 to 12 weeks, including a four-week externship and job search. Most students earn jobs through their externships.

Steve Organ, president of the Maxwell Education Group, has been in the job-training business for 35 years—and he is also one of the teachers. He has only good things to say about the students, and their futures. “We’re proud to help our students develop the broad range of skills they need to get a new lease on life in the workforce,” he says.

The class is a diverse bunch. The average age is 40, and the ethnic breakdown is about 60 percent African American and 40 percent caucasian, with one Latino student. The group includes six veterans, six ex-offenders and a mix of manufacturing experience, from extensive to none. One exception: There are no women in the class—the few that did apply didn’t make it past the entrance exam.

“I guess I am an environmentalist, but I never thought of it like that,” says Sam Williams, an Iraq War veteran and one of 25 students in the first session of the job-training program. While waiting at the Bridesburg Station for his train to West Philly, he recalls the companionship he felt while in the military. He says he feels a similar bond between the staff and the students. “They really support us,” he says. “We feed off their energy and vice versa.”
 
Williams returned from Iraq in 2005. He worked in communications for the military, but couldn’t find a job that fit his skills. When he found out about the opportunity to learn solar panel installation, he went after it. He applied for the course through PA CareerLink Philadelphia (pwdc.org/careerlink), a website run by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board. Williams has found that the work suits him. “Working outside and working with people is what I like to do,” he explains.

Standing in the parking lot of the former arsenal, you can look across Old Frankford Creek—it stretches to nearly 50 feet as it approaches the Delaware River—and see the vestiges of Philadelphia’s industrial past. The city was once called the “workshop of the world.” Manufacturing drove the economy and supported a population that grew to over two million. Jobs were plentiful, unemployment averaged four percent and concepts like “carbon footprint” were still decades away. Those days are gone. Now, only five percent of jobs in Philly are in manufacturing and unemployment is on the rise. Programs like this one aim to make a small dent in that downward trajectory, and point toward a more high-tech, sustainable future for the city.

Organ already sees a national shift towards a new breed of business. Strolling through rows of out-of-service solar panels, he mentions tentative plans for a solar power plant in the Navy Yard. “We saw Obama elected and knew we were going to move towards a green economy,” he says. His company received $150,000 of Philadelphia’s roughly $1 billion in federal stimulus money. The other 803 Philadelphia recipients received an average of $1.2 million, so Maxwell Education Group gets by on a tight budget. While future funding is not guaranteed, Organ feels confidant that the training will continue for at least a few more sessions. 180 people signed up for the next class.

And the program is already a success. A week before their November 21 graduation, over half of the 24 students completing the program had found jobs. They’ve been hired by companies such as Aztec Solar, Eco-Merica, ESS and EOS. Their average starting wage is $15 per hour, and most will earn benefits within 90 days. This goes to show that even in this tough economy, demand for skilled workers in the solar industry is growing. “We know there’s a job market here,” says Organ. “We found it.”

So, in a place that formerly made weapons, Maxwell Education Group is arming local workers with a new set of tools. And, by repurposing a stalwart from the city’s past, Philadelphia is simultaneously reinvigorating its long-dormant manufacturing economy and looking forward as part of an expanding national green industry movement.