Less than four years ago, Bill Harmon lived hand to mouth on the streets of Baltimore, struggled with a drug addiction that depleted his savings and had no prospects for a job with a future.
These days, a drug-free Harmon has a job he believes is the future, thanks to a green careers training program run by Civic Works, Baltimore's urban service corps. Harmon, 56, works as a field technician in the burgeoning environmental industry, where he tests for contaminated soil on construction sites and helps contain hazardous material during demolitions.
"I'm a completely different person now," he said. "It's a great feeling to have hope."
On Tuesday, he helped unveil a job training center in a Northeast Baltimore warehouse that will house an expanded B'More Green, the initiative that helped turn Harmon's life around. The goal of the center is twofold: to help people stung by the recession and, in many instances, a past involving drugs or crime; and to meet a growing demand for workers with "green-collar" skills.In Baltimore and other cities, government officials are looking to green jobs as a way to put the unemployed and underemployed to work in one of the worst job markets in decades. The nation has a shortage of workers who can refurbish homes to make them more energy-efficient, according to a report on the federal "Recovery through Retrofit" program.
"Despite the recession and downturn in the larger construction industry, the home energy market is growing," said John Mello, Green Projects director for Civic Works. "There is a need now, and there is going to be an increasing need."
With Tuesday's opening of The Baltimore Center for Green Careers, paid for through grants totaling more than $1 million from the Open Society Institute - Baltimore and the Maryland Department of Human Resources, Civic Works will continue existing brownfields remediation training and launch a program to train home energy retrofit workers. The three-month program will include one month of classroom training and two months of on-the-job training retrofitting walls, roofs and attics in older Baltimore homes.
Employers will be eligible for a six-month wage subsidy for hiring workers through the center.
"It's really a triple-win," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which was started in 1998 by philanthropist George Soros and works to address the causes of drug addiction, incarceration and poor school performance. "We have the opportunity to help people who are part of the community and eager to work but often barred from working because of criminal convictions. This region needs to have a strong work force, and green jobs are the future."
The institute's grant to Civic Works, which totals more than $500,000, can be traced to a $6 million fund set up last year by Soros to help people hit by the recession, including training and placement.
One program graduate, Aaron Kyria, 32, who completed training last year, has found stable employment despite having served five years in a federal correctional facility on drug-trafficking convictions. Before the training, he could land work only with temporary agencies, for jobs such as washing dishes, and he never got calls back from employers once he told them of his background. He has worked for more than a year on asbestos removal and demolition projects for Retro Environmental.
Harmon said he learned about B'More Green after going into a recovery program several years ago. After years of working as a computer technician, he had ended up homeless because of his drug addiction. He also had several drug-related arrests.
"Try getting a job in that situation; you can't," he said Tuesday during the opening of the green career center. "Companies just don't want to give you a chance. It's pretty depressing."
But the training in B'More Green, from which he graduated in 2007, helped him get a job with Urban Green Environmental, where he performs tasks such as testing the air for dust at construction sites.
The job "is something that makes me proud," he said. "I have a son, and he's proud of me now."