PEORIA — Illinois Central College is looking to the future, in more ways than one.

Its Solar Pipeline Training Program provides jobs in the solar industry. However, more palpable than that is the enthusiasm for the future the program sparks. This was certainly apparent in the program’s most recent graduates. All of them stressed the newness and the wealth of opportunity in the solar industry.

“I feel like all of us are in a really lucky position,” said a visibly excited Mauricio Alwan, of himself and his fellow graduates. Speaking of the incoming fourth class, Alwan said that “they’re not going to have to wait” for solar jobs, because of how the industry is growing.

Supported by a grant from the Future Energy Jobs Act, the program consists of four weeks of initial job readiness training, which focuses on work ethic and communication. This initial stage is handled by two agencies that are in partnership with ICC: the Tri-County Urban League and Jobs Partnership Peoria. The students then undertake another five weeks of hands-on solar training at ICC’s Peoria campus.

For Brian Franklin, an instructor, his favorite part is “see(ing) individuals that may not have had any direction finally have that drive, to where they know exactly what they want to learn.”

Participants can often come out of “really crazy situations,” Alwan said.

“I just did 10 years in the penitentiary,” said his fellow participant Michael Hayes. “And I came right out and got into … the solar program at ICC.”

The structure and clear next steps the program provided were appreciated, he said.

Added Cornelius Parkins: “As long as you’re willing to help yourself, they’re gonna help you, they’re gonna do their part."

In a happy coincidence Friday, the new grads — who have since been employed by the renewable energy contractor Sun Peak — were sent to install solar panels on the Urban League's roof, where many had completed the course's job readiness portion.

They spoke about the relationships they had developed while there. Ellen George, an ICC employee who oversees the program, met them as they came off the Tri-County Urban League roof and gave them all hugs.

“She was almost like a mom to us,” Alwan said of George.

Parkins, who completed the program in Madison, Wis., said he was not paid for the “hands-on” portion, where the participants are taken into the community to get in-field experience. While it was financially challenging, he believes “it all paid off in the long-run, because it gave me the experience that I need for the construction field.”

The training itself is rigorous, with the aim of teaching job readiness to the highest degree.

“You need to be there every day on time,” Alwan said. “There are penalties if you’re one minute late. You can’t even be late back from breaks.”

At the program's end, the participants have to take a written test to become certified. While other programs make students study alone, that's not the case at ICC.

“But they actually help you with that,” Parkins said, adding tutors helped with topics such as math.

Graduate Lamont Harvey also spoke about the opportunities the job gave them to travel to different places, and see new things.

“Life (before the program) was … it was pretty monotonous, to put it in one word,” he said. “You do the same thing over, whether it be going to work or going to school. But this is different. Every job is different. Every site is different. The equipment is different. Everything about the job is different.”