Marc Spohn with Genevieve Fenwick and her family. GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic installed 12 solar panels on Fenwick's Baltimore row home in August 2016.
Marc Spohn with Genevieve Fenwick and her family. GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic installed 12 solar panels on Fenwick’s Baltimore row home in August 2016.

How does a person who has spent 26 years in prison, lacks a high school degree, and has little job experience, become a highly-paid solar installation supervisor in three years?

Marc Spohn’s journey from prison inmate to solar supervisor highlights the opportunities and challenges that face millions of Americans in career transitions. Spohn’s story also spotlights the support groups, solar work force development programs, and just plain special people, needed to help adults transition into family-sustaining careers. With our warming climate, a growing renewable manufacturing industry can help save our planet, and based on Marc’s story, can also help save people, too.

U.S. manufacturing jobs: the ups and mostly downs

Jobs. A big topic in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Finding new ones. Keeping old ones. Getting jobs back that went overseas. The traditional blue-collar manufacturing sector has been shrinking as a percent of U.S. jobs since the 1960s (see chart below).

U.S. manufacturing jobs have shrunk as an overall percentage of American jobs since the 1960s. Credit: CNN Money graph based on Bureau Labor Statistics.
Credit: CNN Money graph based on Bureau Labor Statistics data.

From the 1970s to 2000, the manufacturing sector held steady at about 17 million workers (see chart below). But as we’ve heard, since 2000, five million manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Increased trade, jobs moved overseas, improved productivity, and increased use of robotics in manufacturing are all being blamed as the cause of job losses.

Blue collar jobs took a major hit beginning in 2000. Source Economic Policy Institute.
Blue collar jobs took a major hit beginning in 2000. Source Economic Policy Institute.

Also zapped, the Oil and Gas sector has shrunk 26 percent since 2014. Overproduction combined with reduced demand has driven prices to all-time lows.  Today, 540,000 people work directly in oil and natural gas production. Barely mentioned during the election season, the renewable energy sector, specifically the solar industry, has been growing 20 percent year-over-year. Today, 208,000 people work directly in the solar industry. 

Yet big picture statistics overshadow the fact that the American manufacturing job story is really about individuals. One worker at a time. One worker, along with their family, making major changes, often in their middle years.

The number of solar-related jobs is closing in on the coal jobs figures. Source: Solar Energy Industry Assoc National Solar Jobs Census
800,000 Americans work directly and indirectly in the solar industry. Source: Solar Energy Industry Association’s National Solar Jobs Census

“I feel blessed”

Imagine starting your career for the first time after 26 years of incarceration. Three years ago, Marc Spohn was released from a California prison with $200 in his pocket. I met Marc Spohn, a GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic supervisor, in August at a solar installation in Baltimore, Maryland.

I had just finished a fun day helping Marc’s GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic team install 12 solar panels on Genevieve Fenwick’s Baltimore row house. A nonprofit based in Oakland, California, GRID Alternatives’ mission is to make renewable energy and solar job force training available to underserved communities. With ten regional offices and affiliates serving California, Colorado, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Virginia, Maryland and Delaware, GRID’s solar workforce development program has trained nearly 30,000 solar workers. Since 2001, GRID has completed 7,839 solar installations.

As I walked to my car to drive home, I thanked Marc for hosting my visit. I’d been up on the roof with a group of volunteers and a GRID supervisor, and Marc was managing the project down on the ground. We had not talked during my visit. Spohn thanked me. He added that he felt it was a privilege to work with Ms. Fenwick, and also how blessed he felt to help her family.

I paused. This wasn’t a conversation that I had everyday. Mind you, we had known each other for about one minute. I asked why he felt blessed, and Marc shared, “I can’t escape the gratitude that I feel everyday in helping people. I’m able to live the American dream. I plan to give back everyday of my life.”

I realized we had to continue our conversation; I suspected there was much to be learned from Marc’s story.

A stolen copy machine equals 25-years-to-life

Minus a high school degree, at 18 years of age, Spohn ventured west from his home state Ohio, and found himself lost in Los Angeles. Turning to drugs and alcohol, Spohn was twice arrested for small criminal offenses that he engaged in to support his habit. Marc spent a total of ten years in prison for those arrests.

It was California’s Three Strikes, You’re Out law, legislated in 1994, that redefined Spohn’s life as “petty with a prior.”

‘Three Strikes, You’re Out’ mandated that any Californian arrested for a third time with the two serious or violent arrests on record, would most likely receive a sentence of 25-years-to-life; regardless of the seriousness of the third crime. Marc was arrested a third time for stealing a copy machine and a book of stamps. Spohn was sentenced to 25 years in prison. 

“You can spend months and years in prison and nothing changes,” said Spohn. Though he’s not exactly sure what changed in him, Spohn said, “One day I decided that I was tired of looking in the mirror and seeing an animal. I wanted to see a human. I wanted to look deep in my heart and feel gratification. I vowed I would take advantage of any positive opportunity presented to me in the future.”

In 2012 through a ballot referendum known as Proposition 36, the ‘Three Strikes’ law was overturned. Inmates like Spohn who had served 16 years for a petty crime, now had the opportunity to petition for reduced terms.

“I never though I’d get out,” said Spohn. His case was up for review, and a public defender shepherded his case to completion. “One day I was in lock down and a cop walks in and said that I was out in a few days. Friday, May 3, 2013 to be exact.” With a net worth of $200, Spohn took a bus south to Los Angeles and entered a re-entry facility.

Finding support outside of walls

Spohn explains that post-prison life was difficult. “You’re totally on your own. The re-entry facility fell through and I found myself homeless. A senior clerk at the public defenders’ office was my angel. She helped me find housing at the Salvation Army’s Bell Shelter for the homeless.” To provide Marc much needed structure and routine, his public-defender-friend called him each day and made sure that Marc had at least one task to complete that day. “She’d call and make sure that I finished one daily goal like getting on public assistance, securing a social security card, and mastering the bus system.  These tasks kept me moving forward.” said Spohn.

In 2014, Spohn visited Homeboy Industries. A nonprofit, Homeboy Industries offers previous gang members and once-incarcerated adults a wide variety of services – job training, counseling and tattoo removal. Run by the inspirational and infamous Father Greg, Homeboy Industries also covers the tuition and supply costs for the four-month Photovoltaic Training Program at the East Los Angeles Skills Center. Nearly 1,000 Homeboy Industry clients have completed the solar program with 70 percent of graduates receiving a job offer within three months.

Spohn enrolled in the solar installation program and has never looked back. After completing 360 hours of class time and on-the-job training, Spohn graduated. He then earned a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners Photovoltaic Level 1, 2, and 3 certificate.

Enter GRID Alternatives, an employer partner at the East Los Angeles Skills Center solar program. GRID offers a “volunteer classroom in the field” where newly-minted solar workers can network with employers while honing their new skills. Spohn signed up with GRID and became a “super volunteer.” Applying his newly certified skills in solar design, permitting, installation, and inspection, Spohn gained real-world solar job experience. He also worked closely with one of GRID’s supervisors, Salvador Torres. Torres later recommended Spohn for a full-time position with GRID Alternatives. As GRID expanded into more states, Spohn climbed up the ladder, literally, and was promoted to supervisor. Moving across the country, Spohn helped open GRID’s Mid-Atlantic office. 

The clean energy revolution equals jobs

The growing clean energy solar industry offers motivated men and women family-sustaining careers. Solar jobs match well with workers who don’t want to be “stuck behind a desk,” or those workers who traditionally leaned to manufacturing positions.  The average solar worker earns $21 per hour, or $43,000 per year. 

Solar offers family-sustaining wages and careers. Source: SEIA National Solar Census
Solar offers family-sustaining wages and careers. Source: SEIA National Solar Census

Holistic Career Transition Support

Marc’s story is a lens into the day-to-day challenges facing adults transitioning jobs within the manufacturing sector. Any business sector, really. Real-world bills still need to be paid. Securing financial aid for re-education and tuition is tough. Updated hard skills are needed to work in a more technologically-focused work world.

Possibly, the most critical piece of the puzzle, and the toughest to get right, are the ‘soft skills’ support people need as they transition careers. A ‘wrap-around’ support approach including, legal matters, resume writing, interview do’s and don’ts, mental health support, and plain old inspiration, seems key to prop people up as they hit road blocks. 

Marc was fortunate to have found the people, programs and support that he needed to, as Homeboy Industries states, “become a contributing member of our society.” If you’re interested in learning about working in the solar industry, check out Baltimore’s  Civic Works’ solar training program and GRID Alternatives Mid-Atlantic program. If this article found you outside of our Baltimore fishbowl, visit the Solar Energy Industries Association’s solar job board for links to programs in your area. 

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Laurel Peltier

Laurel Peltier writes the environment GreenLaurel column every Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.