Making Green Collar Jobs a Reality

July 01, 2009
July/August 2009
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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 We are surely living at a critical time for energy policy. For the first time in recent memory, our President, and increasingly our Congress, are making clean energy a cornerstone of our national economic strategy, and doing so in concrete terms of job creation, greenhouse gas reduction, and getting the United States back on track to be a world leader in clean energy. Judging from the scale of investment in the stimulus package, $5.2 billion nationwide and $252.8 million in Pennsylvania for the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) alone, the energy efficiency and renewable industries are in for explosive growth. In order to ramp up quickly enough to responsibly deliver on this level of public investment and frankly national expectation and need, it will be essential to invest heavily in workforce development, on a level that is unprecedented.

The Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a non-profit, has been providing comprehensive low-income energy services in Philadelphia for 25 years. To build capacity at the grassroots level, ECA established a citywide network of what is now 14 Neighborhood Energy Centers, each of which serves as a one-stop-shop for low income energy services. These centers keep us rooted in the communities that we serve, and help make our services easily accessible to residents. Additionally, the Neighborhood Energy Centers are key sites for energy conservation education, a critical component considering the role human behavior plays in lowering energy usage and costs.

ECA has always been committed to building a racially diverse staff. At present, ECA employs more than 100 people, 83% of whom are African-American or Hispanic. We are the largest employer in the Kensington neighborhood, where our warehouse is located, and we are doubling our weatherization staff to keep pace with the new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds (also known as the stimulus bill). Increasingly, ECA has become a go-to organization for city officials and workforce development professionals for the training and placement of the extremely eager job seekers in Philadelphia. ECA now owns and operates the only green jobs training center in Southeastern Pennsylvania and is currently working hard to train the many new people needed to effectively ramp up the Weatherization Assistance Program, other ARRA funded projects, and utility funded programs.

As the price of energy has risen in recent years, and the problem of energy affordability has spread to the working poor (do you remember when we referred to this group as the working class?), ECA has updated its mission and adapted its services to address residential energy needs more broadly. Smart Energy Solutions is a department of ECA that provides the Home Performance with Energy Star, Energy Star Homes, and LEED for Homes programs for new and existing market rate homes. Additionally, ECA has increased efforts to educate all income levels about energy conservation. Part of that effort has included training contractors in the basics of home performance so that they are more able to participate in the energy efficiency work promoted by more substantial tax credits and state programs that incentivize energy efficiency.

At this critical juncture, ECA, like many providers of the national WAP, is rapidly expanding our services. In fact, we expect to double or even triple our low-income energy conservation programs in the next 12 months. Currently, ECA is training a group of 20 people in the basics of weatherization including air sealing, insulating, carpentry, heating, and auditing. Half of the class was referred to ECA through the Welfare to Work program and the other half were chosen from more than 400 interested applicants. There is clearly great interest in this field, a welcome change from years past, but it is important to continually look ahead, beyond the stimulus money, in order to see the future of weatherization and sustainable careers for these new hires. ECA sees this future in standardized training and certification for both low-income and market rate work.

Home Performance with Energy Star

ECA’s Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES) program in market rate homes (not low-income and thus not qualified for free weatherization services under WAP), of course requires our auditors to be certified Building Performance Institute (BPI) energy analysts. While the BPI standard and the HPwES protocols are consistent with those used in the WAP program, we have found them to be a little more rigorous. We have also found it less confusing to have one standard for home performance across both our low income and market rate work. As a result, we have decided to offer training and BPI certification to all our WAP auditors, inspectors, and supervisors. Our goal is to bridge the divide between our low income and market rate programs and to give all field staff the same technical frame of reference. We also appreciate that the BPI certification is a nationally recognized credential, which will give our staff more self-confidence and perhaps, greater upward mobility in the energy profession. The vast majority of our WAP field staff comes from the same neighborhoods that we serve. Many of them do not have college degrees or any formal training beyond high school other than weatherization training. The BPI certification is especially valuable for this staff.

A great example of this mobility is Suechada Poynter, one of our current energy auditors in the WAP program, who seized ECA’s offer to become BPI certified. Suechada started at ECA as an air sealer and quickly moved up to become an auditor. She says, “Green jobs have opened a lot of doors for a lot of lower class people to get into this field. This is just the beginning of a bigger door.” Suechada, a Thai immigrant, is now studying architecture at the local community college and plans to use her knowledge of building science in her new career. The BPI certification gave her confidence in her own skills and showed her the next rung on the green jobs ladder. She studied hard, took the class and exams and now holds a national certification that allows her to work in many areas of home performance. Suechada embodies the type of employment mobility that ECA wants to provide.

Sustainable Jobs, Sustainable Living

Much of the excitement about green collar jobs centers on the understanding that these are good jobs that pay a living wage, require real skills, can’t be out-sourced, and provide pathways to career advancement for Americans from all backgrounds. Residential energy efficiency has been an under valued market for many builders, contractors, and labor unions who didn’t see a lot of money in this line of work. And yet, now that we face the undeniable fact of global warming and climate change it is residential energy use that could make all the difference. Suddenly, green collar jobs are everyone’s favorite pathway to the middle class, as highlighted by Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Philadelphia for the kick-off of the Middle Class Taskforce. In his speech he highlighted green jobs as the answer to unemployment, while simultaneously reducing our energy use and including traditionally marginalized groups. And yet to make that slogan a reality, we need to align the two biggest weatherization and home performance programs in the country to use a consistent standard. In this way, workers in the low income WAP can more easily move into market rate jobs through the Home Performance with Energy Star and other similar programs.

However, we recognize that not every WAP auditor may be able to pass the BPI test. ECA has found that there are significant barriers that have nothing to do with intelligence or competence. The BPI test is frequently administered as an electronic test. For several of our auditors this was a challenge. They had never taken a computerized test before and didn’t know how to go back and check their work. It is important to anticipate these issues in the training sessions themselves. We’ve also found that an online training program out of Helena, Montana called Saturn Online is an excellent and extremely cost effective preparation for the BPI training (see “Computer-Based Energy Analyst Training,” p.8). Saturn Online would be a good way to train hundreds of people quickly in home performance; its flexible schedule allows people to complete the coursework at their own pace, and it gives those who are not computer literate an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the mechanics of online testing. Thus far, students who take the Saturn on-line course are experiencing a higher pass rate in the BPI training than those who do not.

Training the Future

Most states, including Pennsylvania, are finally beginning to take climate change and rising energy prices seriously, and are passing significant energy efficiency legislation. PA Act 129 requires Pennsylvania’s electric utilities to achieve a 1% reduction in energy consumption by 2011, 3% by 2013 and a 4.5% reduction in peak load by 2013. As the utilities scramble to put together their plans, they are faced with the fact that this green collar workforce is a bit thin: there are too few qualified workers. This same problem faces WAP administrators who have recently received funding increases.

ECA has stepped up to that challenge with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We plan to renovate our Conservation Center to create a building science training center to prepare young people just entering the workforce, contractors looking to improve their energy skills, and a broad range of people interested in energy efficiency and solar energy. With this state of the art green collar jobs training center, ECA will help meet its own training needs at the same time that we help build a skilled workforce for the energy efficiency and solar industries in the Mid Atlantic region. The training center will be LEED certified to provide a positive training environment that embodies the principles being taught. It will feature hands-on laboratory spaces with working heating and air conditioning equipment; life-size mock- ups of hard-to-insulate knee walls, flat roof attic cavities, bays, and crawlspaces; and other situations the technicians encounter in real houses every day. Trainees will have the opportunity to work alongside experienced crews to get a feel for what working in this field means on the day-to-day level. ECA wants to collaborate with community colleges, technical and vocational schools, manufacturers and others committed to building a clean energy economy.

We will need many more trainers and training centers all across the country if we are to move from inspiration to implementation. This discussion looks to the future, and pushes us all to think about practical strategies to make that future as equitable, inclusive and sustainable as it can be.   

Liz Robinson has served as the Executive Director of the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA) since its inception in 1984. She has over 30 years of experience in energy services, community development, training, and education.  

Katrina Schwartz is a Policy Analyst and Director of Education for the Energy Coordinating Agency.Katrina works on energy policy at the state and local levels and writes an energy advice column on the philly.com green blog, Earth to Philly.


>> For more information:
To learn more about ECA, go to:
www.ecasavesenergy.org/.
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