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Minnesota prison program aims to prepare inmates for solar jobs

Minnesota prison program aims to prepare inmates for solar jobs

WRITTEN BY Frank Jossi

Thirty inmates took solar installation courses as part of the program, but whether any secured employment after their release isn’t yet clear.

A growing demand for clean energy employees led the Minnesota Department of Corrections earlier this year to offer a solar installation course to two classes of inmates prior to their release dates.

Held last spring and summer, 30 men took the 48-hour solar installer training course from instructors working with the Wisconsin-based Midwest Renewable Energy Association. The nonprofit used the same course it offers members of the general public.

While it’s still too soon to tell if the program will succeed in helping inmates find work, its existence is a reflection of Minnesota’s changing energy economy.

When Ruth Stadheim, director of career and technical education for the Corrections Department, saw a few years ago that the state would be requiring utilities to produce 1.5 percent of their electricity from solar by 2020, she figured the market for workers would likely explode.

“It’s a field we know they could get a job in,” she said. “We heard the industry would hire everyone we trained.”

The Solar Foundation confirms that impression, reporting that Minnesota saw 94 percent job growth in installation work from 2016 to 2017, one of highest increases of any state in the country. Solar also seemed to fit other training the prison system offers in construction trades and manufacturing, among other professions, Stadheim said.

Related: Government group buying is helping to spread solar across Minnesota

While the solar training initiative in Minnesota looks promising, it suffers from the same woes as many career training programs: Data does not exist on whether the inmates, after their release, found jobs. And the national solar installer test turned out to be challenging — half the men in the program failed to pass it, some by just a few points.

Still, Corrections Department officials believe the solar industry is a promising bright spot for former inmates. They plan to increase the number of solar courses next year to reach as many as 75 participants. Adding tweaks to the process, they hope, will increase the pass rate. 

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