Canada's green-collar jobs

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Canadians for green jobs. (Image: greenforall.org, Creative Commons)

There's plenty of financial hardship to our north, in Canada. Job losses are mounting there. Last year, the Canadian province of Ontario alone lost about 100,000 manufacturing jobs. Many of those jobs were in the auto industry.

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Now, as "The World's" Jason Margolis reports, many of those former Canadian auto workers are looking for a new career.

Euan Gibb spent 12 years on the Ford factory floor in Oakville, Ontario. He started building vehicles at the age of 19. That's what many people do in Southern Ontario -- or rather, that's what many people did. Gibb says right now the mood in southern Ontario is: "Kinda dark, because so many of the most important things are completely out of people’s control. Right? You don't get to decide what cars are made in your factory. You don't get to decide hours of work. You don't get to decide some of the most important stuff for your job and your potential job security. It's out of your control, and so you just look at it and you wonder -- you just try and anticipate what’s coming next."

Gibb didn't see good things coming next, so last fall he took a voluntary buyout. Now, he spends his days taking care of his young daughter. Gibb has a college degree that he earned while working at the plant. In fact, he has two Masters. But how will those degrees translate into work when there are few jobs here? In the city of Windsor, just across the river from Detroit, a lone student sits in a cavernous room, cutting metal. Students like him used to come to this community college to learn the skills needed to work in the auto industry. No longer. But just because auto manufacturing is disappearing, many say that doesn’t mean manufacturing should disappear, too.

Mark Bartlett spent 20 years building Chrysler minivans. Now, he's off the factory floor and he works on a green jobs campaign for the Canadian Auto Workers Union: "The business case for Windsor, for manufacturing anything, remains the same.

"There's a number of things that Windsor has that other locations don't. We have manufacturing facilities and capacity and skills -- skilled labor. Something like 22 percent of all the mold makers in Canada are right here."

So, Bartlett asks, why couldn't some of those molds that make cars be converted to make something like wind turbines: "The sky is the limit. There's wind, solar, biomass. What we have to do is shine the light on Windsor; let everyone know that we're here, that we're open for business."

Windsor is trying to reshape its image by reshaping what people see when they first enter it from the United States. In a promotional video, artists render a futuristic vision of the first stretch of road that motorists see when they enter Canada from Detroit. In the video, windmills are whirring, trees sprout up, and ultramodern cars zip by. The vision is in place. What Windsor now needs are re-trained workers.

Tim Tiegs is helping design a two-year green jobs program at St. Clair College in Windsor. Students can take classes learning how to build wind turbines or solar panels. Or, for example, they can train to become environmental consultants, helping people answer questions like how to design eco-friendly homes: "What is an eco-friendly carpeting? What is an eco-friendly building material? You want to do shingles? Do you understand that's tar? Is the tar being reclaimed from old roads that we've dug up so we’re not relying on somebody drilling a hole in the ground, sucking more oil out to do this."

The college is hoping to get the program up and running next year. Tim Tiegs talks a mile-a-minute, brimming with optimism. He says right now, that’s what people in Windsor need.

Tiegs: "If we have people on board down here who feel good, who can see that silver lining and aren’t phony about it, because I don’t think anybody wants the clown in the fuzzy hat, you know, pulling the rabbits out to make you feel happy. People who have plans that say – that say, “Listen. Did you know this is available? Yes, there is people that are doing that. There are groups that are looking to build homegrown wind turbines.” They perk up a little bit. They feel a little bit better about the fact that they could be part of it, that their skill they used to use to build a car could build wind turbines now."

That hope in green collar jobs is rampant in many industrial centers in the US, too. But Ontario has an advantage. The provincial government has aggressive plans for clean energy. Ontario currently gets 25 percent of its electricity from coal. The government wants to shut down all its coal plants by 2012. That lost electricity has to be replaced somewhere, which could be a major boon for green jobs in this economically depressed area.

This segment originally aired on "The World" on March4, 2009.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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