When heating oil spiked in 2008, roughly 500 Mainers took a state housing authority course to become weatherization technicians. Another 200 became certified energy auditors.

Then two unexpected things happened: Oil prices collapsed and the country plunged into a deep recession.

The result was that fewer people had the incentive or money to insulate their homes. Today, the majority of those trainees are doing other jobs or are out of work.

“It should be a cautionary tale,” said Curry Caputo, president of the Maine Association of Building Efficiency Professionals.

Maine won’t need hundreds of new insulation techs or auditors in the near future, Caputo said, despite the sense that a flood of federal stimulus money and the state’s goal of weatherizing all homes will create a wave of new, green jobs.

“The estimates are inflated,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Green jobs. Maine is trying to position itself as a leader in a clean-energy economy. Advocates envision thousands of green jobs, buttoning up drafty homes, developing wind farms and installing solar panels.

But a new report by the Maine Department of Labor says the reality is more complicated. It’s not possible now for the state to develop a detailed plan for green work force development, the department has concluded. Researchers can’t even confirm the number of green jobs in Maine today.

“It’s a moving target,” said John Dorrer, director of the state’s Center for Workforce Research and Information.

As weatherization training shows, green jobs are highly dependent on volatile energy prices, government policies and the overall economy. After consulting with state agencies and industry reps like Caputo, labor department researchers concluded the state will only need another 55 full-time energy auditors and 118 more weatherization techs between now and 2015.

“The last thing we should be doing is training more people,” Dorrer said.

To gain a more accurate picture, Maine has begun working with a consortium of seven Northeastern states that are using software to track Internet job postings that call for green job skills. This approach reflects a move away from simply counting green jobs to understanding what skills and educational requirements are needed to power a clean-energy economy.

The stakes are high for Maine. The state lost 30,000 jobs since the economy peaked in late 2007. Most were in manufacturing, retail and construction.

The energy sector holds promise for helping replace them. Some are near-term activities, such as land-based wind projects and new transmission lines. Others are long-term prospects, including offshore wind farms and biofuels development.

The labor department report, compiled this month for the Maine Legislature, represents a continuing attempt to tally clean-energy employment and plan for future training and education. From the start, researchers have run into a basic hurdle — how to define a green job.

The department tried to do this by identifying firms that say they’re involved with renewable energy or efficiency products or services. that rough measure, Maine had 523 green employers and 16,782 green jobs in 2008.

But this approach has problems, Dorrer said.

If a bulldozer operator is opening a road at a wind farm, that’s a green job. But the job is no longer green, Dorrer said, when the operator finishes and moves to a highway bridge project. It’s the same with a heating contractor trained to install wood pellet boilers, or an electrician certified to wire solar panels.

So the focus shouldn’t be on green jobs specifically, Dorrer said, but the greening of jobs in general.

Dorrer said he’s reminded of late-20th century hype over high-tech jobs. Call centers were considered high-tech workplaces — not customer service employers — when they first began springing up in Maine. Today, working in front of a computer screen is the norm.

“I think a lot of that will happen with green jobs,” he said.

But the desire to count green jobs remains powerful because the numbers are a tool to shape public policy. And headcounts may invite hyperbole, when headlines fail to convey important details.

For instance: Efficiency Maine Trust is the new, independent agency preparing to coordinate the state’s conservation efforts. It recently unveiled a three-year plan that it says could create 12,000 new jobs.

But only 1,500 of those positions actually would be green jobs. The rest would be created through a multiplier effect, in which economists calculate how a job creates and supports additional employment.

Green job projections also tend to depend on the availability of public funding over time.

An example is the report released last April on Earth Day by Opportunity Maine, a Portland-based education and work force advocacy group. Maine could cut its energy bills by $10 billion and create 10,000 jobs over a decade with a comprehensive economic and energy plan, the group estimated.

The plan, however, needed $180 million a year that the group hoped to raise by convincing lawmakers to expand taxes on energy purchases, such as heating oil. That effort failed.

But the plan made a point, according to Rob Brown, the group’s co-director. To create and maintain green jobs, funding must remain predictable and the cost of energy has to be high enough.

“What drives demand is public and private investment, and energy prices,” he said.

Lacking a clear picture, educators are taking advantage of public investment, and perceived demand, to design green courses.

Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield is a leader in work force energy training. It received a $2.8 million federal grant last year to train community college instructors in the region who then will teach students how to install photovoltaic and solar hot water systems.

Students taking existing solar hot water courses tend to be plumbers who want to diversify, according to Dana Doran, the school’s director of energy programs. That approach is in line with the idea of expanding green skills, he said.

Doran said he’s aware, though, that fewer students are signing up these days for solar courses. It may be because there are enough installers now to meet consumer demand, he said.

But that reality hasn’t slowed weatherization and energy auditor training.

The school is planning to offer new courses this summer. Some students may be upgrading their skills to meet new certification requirements, but Doran said he doesn’t follow up to know how many recent graduates are working.

“There is demand,” he said. “We are filling the training programs.”

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

[email protected]