New Orleans resident Jordan Walters quit his sales job this year to join a youth service program that would allow him to explore a field he believes will be recession-proof, renewable energy.
"You make a decent amount of money in sales, but there's no longevity in a recession," said Walters, 23, who gained experience with renewable energy projects in the Conservation Corps of Greater New Orleans. The group is dedicated to helping the city recover from 2005's devastating Hurricane Katrina.
"There's a lot of new construction going on here," said Walters, whose experience in the group earned him a full-time job with a company installing solar thermal panels. "If you're going to change things, New Orleans is the place to do it, and you might as well do it right."
With support from the Corps Network, the city of New Orleans and a $5.8 million grant from the U.S. Labor Department, the New Orleans Corps has helped put more than 800 people between the ages of 17 and 24 to work on projects involving environmental stewardship, energy conservation and historic restoration.
Many participants come to the program after run-ins with the law. Some have spent time in jail. The program requires participants to work four months with one of seven nonprofit groups at an hourly wage of $8.55 and gives AmeriCorps college scholarships worth as much as $1,250 to those who complete the program.
Over 15 months, the program has placed 75 percent of its graduates in employment, secondary or post-secondary education, certification programs, or the military.
On Friday, the corps celebrated its achievements with a presentation allowing graduates to share their projects with New Orleans communities they had served. "You've shown commitment and leadership in helping restore and revitalize the Greater New Orleans community," Louisiana state Sen. Cheryl Gray Evans (D) wrote in a letter to the corps. "You are helping lead the state of Louisiana into this green economy. You are truly making the change we want to see."
The celebration also offered an opportunity to request more funding. "The grant we're using ends June 30, but we're hopeful local sectors or Labor can step up," corps director Reed Dickson said.
Walters' work with the corps connected him with the nonprofit Alliance for Affordable Energy, where he learned basic construction skills and weatherized low-income housing. The goal was to help residents save more than 15 percent on energy bills by retrofitting their houses with insulation, radiant barriers and compact fluorescent lights.
"We got to help a lot of people out and make some money," Walters said.
After his graduation, the alliance helped Walters get a job with South Coast Solar, one of the largest solar companies in Louisiana. Within three months, Walters will be qualified to be trained in photovoltaic installations, South Coast Solar President Troy Von Otnott said.
Walters now earns slightly less than what he made at his sales job, but he sees more opportunity for specialized training and higher pay later.
"I've got a good outlook for the future," he said.
Youth development, economic recovery
Walters' case is not unusual at the corps, the group's leaders say.
Another recent graduate, Arreina Goudeau, recently began taking college psychology courses while continuing her job with the GulfSouth Youth Biodiesel Project, which converts cooking grease to motor fuels and glycerin for soaps.
"I'm more motivated, dedicated and helping my environment now," said Goudeau, who earned her GED during her service with the corps.
To be sure, a job that is environmentally sustainable isn't necessarily economically viable.
Dickson, the program's director, said the corps is modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed millions of Americans between 1933 and 1942. Many of those jobs were in national parks and forests.
"Green jobs are more economically viable than they ever were before," Dickson said. "Youth development goes hand in hand with economic recovery."
The only qualification youth must meet to join the corps is at least a year of full-time work experience. One day a week is dedicated to basic math, literacy and communications skills.
Much of the program's work in New Orleans is linked to rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated a 90,000-square-mile area and damaged more than 100,000 homes.
"In New Orleans, we can see the green economy right before our eyes," Dickson said. "There's a lot of discussion about whether green jobs will persist, but our experience is that they are here now."