Maine’s intertwined economic and energy challenges have deep roots. We have the nation’s oldest housing and work force, greatest reliance on heating oil, and highest percentage of young people neither working pursuing education. Electricity costs are high, and Maine has the lowest income and education levels in New England.

We must turn these challenges into opportunity. Public and private investment in energy efficiency and local renewable power generation can save Maine’s economy billions and create good-paying, non-exportable jobs in every community, if we give our work force the skills to refashion our energy economy.

Across the country, the most effective model for meeting challenges like Maine’s energy crisis has been the “sector partnership model,” which unites stakeholders in an economic sector to lead training efforts across multiple firms for current and potential workers within the targeted industry sector.

One of Maine’s most successful sector partnerships and best kept educational secrets is the Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee in Lewiston.

The JATC is managed by a board comprised, in equal numbers, of business and labor representatives. Its curriculum, training and credentials conferred guarantees graduates possess the skills businesses need.

An impressive 85 percent of those who start the training complete it and more than 90 percent of graduates are placed in good jobs. The JATC’s high completion and placement rates result from its “earn while you learn” training strategy. Apprentices work real jobs and get an education in a coordinated, streamlined program. When it comes time to find a job, these graduates already have one foot in the clean energy work force.

Sector partnerships like the JATC target resources by supporting the long-term competitiveness of industries and education, and training opportunities that lead to good-paying, green-skilled jobs. They unite stakeholders in a given industry — in this case, clean energy — to identify all needs for building the sector as a whole, and meeting those needs in a manner that maximizes economic opportunity for local people, particularly those with low incomes and other disadvantages for which a four-year college degree is not practical or possible.

We are setting ourselves up for failure if we build a renewable energy market without developing a high-quality work force, and if we don’t parlay our clean energy and work force investments into opportunities to bring renewable energy component manufacturing to Maine. Currently, over half of all wind components, 90 percent of solar components and 100 percent of advanced battery technology is manufactured elsewhere.

It will mean little to American workers if the clean energy economy is built in China.

Meeting our energy needs and manufacturing the products to do it requires greater coordination and innovation than now exists. Workers must be trained for jobs that exist today and will exist in greater numbers as the clean energy economy expands. Both Maine and the federal government have taken promising steps in this direction, but require bolder action.

One of the most promising developments is the federal SECTORS Act (Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success). It would provide state grants to establish or expand sector partnerships, allowing businesses, work force development boards, labor unions and community colleges to collaborate to determine work force and community needs and link skilled workers with emerging industries. Sen. Olympia Snowe is a lead sponsor, and Rep. Mike Michaud has championed SECTORS in the House.

Additionally, the Senate must now pass the American Clean Energy & Security Act, which will implement substantial energy market reforms and work force investments in the clean energy sector. This legislation, with the new Efficiency Maine Trust, clean energy investments and reforms Opportunity Maine has proposed at the state level, and the work force investments contained in the SECTORS Act and epitomized by successful partnerships like the JATC, can turn an energy crisis into an opportunity for prosperity for this and future Maine generations.

Don Berry is the director of the JATC. Rob Brown is the executive director of Opportunity Maine. E-mail: [email protected] or [email protected].

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