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US trains green workers of the future

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Tehachapi, California

They call it the land of four seasons.

Wind turbines near Mojave, California
Entire hillsides are covered with wind turbines in Mojave, California

But in Tehachapi, California, they mean four seasons in one day.

In this remote corner between the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert, it can feel like summer one hour, winter the next.

And the weather is propelled by strong winds that man has put to use - entire hillsides are covered by wind turbines.

This is a pioneering place for the US's wind power industry and it is where engineers of the future learn their trade.

Massive expansion

We joined some young students from nearby Cerro Coso Community College as an industry professional guided them on their first climb of an 80ft (27m) wind turbine tower.

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Students climb their first wind turbine as part of their training

It is part of a course where they learn the mechanical, practical and safety skills needed to maintain and fix wind turbines.

They have each paid around $1,000 (£684): for young men barely out of their teens that is a lot, but they believe it will pay off with stable jobs and salaries that can start at up to three times the national minimum wage.

And the jobs will be there.

The economic stimulus package recently passed by the US Congress includes money to make people's homes more energy efficient.

National benchmark

It is part of a much bigger plan: President Obama wants to spend $150bn over 10 years on a massive expansion of renewable energy.

He says it will cut the country's dependance on foreign oil, create five million "green-collar" jobs and help tackle climate change.

But training courses like the one in Tehacahapi are rare.

There is no national standard for wind engineers in the US and on this course a private company is working with the community college to try to establish a national benchmark.

Mike Messier, Vice-President of Training for Airstreams Renewables Inc, says the waiting list for their course is up to three months and there are not enough courses to meet the predicted demand for wind engineers.

A hundred miles away, at East Los Angeles Skills Centre, solar panel installation classes are over-subscribed.

Trainer Larry Calderon says their waiting list is three months long and they desperately need more teachers.

Some in this class are among California's burgeoning jobless. The state's unemployment rate is 10.5% and rising, higher than the national average.

Most of the students are ex-gang members with prison time, looking for a new start.

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College students learn how to install solar power equipment

It is a good time for people like them: Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger recently launched California Green Corps, which will use federal stimulus money to help train at-risk young people for green jobs.

Whatever their background, all have hope they will walk into jobs that pay well.

Solar and wind power are both key to President Obama's aim: that America should get a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

It is an ambitious goal, but making sure the country has the right skills even to attempt it is the first step.



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