Five months ago, Toledoan James Curtis was making a comfortable living as a laboratory technician for a small Dana Corp. affiliate, Pierburg Pump Technology.
After about eight years on the job, Mr. Curtis, 42, in May joined the ranks of the unemployed. Like so many others with auto-related jobs slashed in the financial crisis, Mr. Curtis has been forced to find ways to adapt his skills in a changing marketplace.
"We're still making it pretty well," he said of the struggle to pay the mortgage and keep food on the table for his family of four with about $340 per week in unemployment checks. "Not too well, not like we used to."
But Mr. Curtis has paid attention as the Toledo job market has turned green - and signed up to learn more about wind power in one of several grant-funded classes Owens Community College started offering last week at The Source downtown.
Funded by a $1.9 million federal stimulus grant, Owens through May is offering noncredit courses about wind power and geothermal and solar energy free-of-charge to qualified unemployed workers. Thanks to the grant, students are provided with all of their textbooks, any necessary uniforms, and transportation from The Source to field trips. Participants must prove they are without work or underemployed to be placed for retraining in the green energy or health industries.
About 1,500 unemployed workers applied through The Source for one of the up to 30 spots offered in the first 19 classes, according to Willie Williams, director of the Owens Learning Center at The Source.
The curriculum for these classes already existed, but the grant allowed the college to offer the classes first to the people that needed them most - the unemployed, said Mike Bankey, vice president for Workforce and Community Services at Owens. Participants in the energy-related classes will ultimately be able to use their noncredit coursework at Owens toward a two-year degree in alternative energy; that degree is still being developed, he said.
Owens Instructor Brady Bancroft stood before a group of about 13 students last week in the first days of his Wind Power Installation class.
The lessons started slowly. There was an overview of the anatomy of a wind turbine - so that when students get their hands on the new $20,000 unit at the main campus they'll understand what they're looking at.
But first, simple algebra.
"'Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,' remember that?"
Mr. Bancroft reminded the group of adult learners the old pneumonic device to remember the order of operations when solving an algebraic math equation - parentheses, exponents, multiplication and division, then addition and subtraction. But he punctuated the math review with a warning - don't dismiss simple equations like these without writing them down and solving them step-by-step.
"I encourage you to start thinking like an engineer," Mr. Bancroft said. "If you build something and it falls down, people are going to be very miffed if you made a mistake with the calculation."
After the class, Mr. Bancroft explained his disciplined and straight-forward approach.
"Everybody comes to you from different places," Mr. Bancroft said.
Though most of his students are transitioning into the green marketplace from manufacturing or construction industries, Mr. Bancroft has been in the game since he began his career. With credentials in solar power and electrical engineering, he has researched sustainable energy since the 1980s for the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank.
He's seen the interest in sustainable green energy ebb and flow decade by decade. He's convinced that this time, the general public is embracing green energy as more than a fad.
"I've seen it sort of start and stop, but now it has a lot more energy, a lot more momentum than it has in recent years because we've really sort of run out of time and options," Mr. Bancroft said of the green energy movement. Before "I didn't run into so many people that were in a career change mode, and that is a big difference. But you know, that's good. If you can get more people in on the technology, we can make that happen."
This classroom be a second chance for unemployed workers like Kaye Brazier, 49, of Toledo.
An unemployed iron worker, Ms. Brazier ran the union apprenticeship program for Local 55 before the demand for work in the Toledo-area dropped off. She left for a temporary supervisory construction job near Washington almost two years ago. When she returned this summer, she found that work here had all but dried up for her union.
"I hope this manages to be part of the cure-all," she said.
Now Ms. Brazier is hoping to apply her studies in the wind class to a future degree and a new career related to the installation of wind turbines.
She's excited that the class could get her closer to a career change, but hopes the courses like this will also improve the desperate circumstances of many of her classmates and neighbors.
"The class is a mix of people with different backgrounds," she said. "For so many of us, it just came to a standstill. Who would think this late in the ballgame it would be this difficult to stay employed?"
Contact Bridget Tharp at: