We've been writing a lot of downer posts the past month. It's just the way things are for so many Minnesotans struggling in this economy. So when Jesse Dahl dropped a note today to tell us things were looking up for him, we jumped at the chance for something upbeat.
Back in 2008, Dahl was an unemployed union electrician on the Iron Range when he started helping MPR News get a fix on the Minnesota economy. He was among the original Economic Lookouts, the project that spawned MinnEcon.
The future wasn't looking all that great at that point. But then he started to transform himself. He trained to install solar electric arrays and started to get steady work. He caught a wave of interest in green energy that's grown with new federal incentives for renewable energy.
Now he's teaching others. A call over the summer from one of his old electrical instructors at Hibbing Community College led to a gig this fall teaching a new class on installing solar photovoltaic cells.
We asked Dahl to tell us what he's seeing in his classroom. His students, he said, come from a wide range of ages (19 to 40) and backgrounds.
Some of them are right out of high school, some have been working low wage jobs and are looking for a new career, some worked construction doing roofing and iron work, and a couple couldn't get into the electrical program this year because the classes were full so they are taking this first and next year they will start the electrical classes.
It is a certificate program. At the end of the year they will be taking the NABCEP entry level exam. (MinnEcon note: That's the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners).
The job prospects look pretty good. A couple of the students are willing to move, so I have been emailing with some of the contractors on NABCEP's job board to get info for the students.
The Cities offers a chance to some of the students, and there is a contractor in Duluth that installs solar.
The solar wave has come and gone before. It's hard to tell if it's here to stay this time or what will happen when the incentives end.
For now, at least, it's one pathway out of this lousy economy, toward a potentially bright future.
"My plan is to get my masters license this winter and my contractors license in the spring," Dahl told us. " I have been meeting with another electrician and we might team up and start our own shop."
BONUS INFO: Listen to an interview with Dahl over the summer on the solar electric business in Minnesota.