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Weatherization Training Plans--Gateway to a New Economy

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) set the stage for many new and expanded training initiatives.

July 01, 2011
July/August 2011
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Not only did the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) provide the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) with greatly increased funding to finance energy efficiency retrofits to low-income households, but it also set the stage for many new and expanded training initiatives. The DOE Training and Technical Assistance (T&TA) Plan describes WAP as a gateway to a green economy and new residential energy efficiency initiatives and acknowledges that DOE intends to ensure that Recovery Act investments help build a better, stronger weatherization network that provides the foundation needed for a national energy efficiency retrofit market. ARRA doubled the percentage of WAP funding allocated for training and technical assistance to 20%, and state WAP managers were able to consider training initiatives that had previously been fantasies.


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Weatherization professionals have long known that a well-trained workforce is an essential component of a high-quality program—one that ensures recipients the greatest possible energy savings, while addressing any potential health or safety problems. The WAP network has made major advances in the national training effort over the 30-year history of the program. Computerized energy audits and diagnostic testing, the use of blower doors and digital combustion analyzers; duct leakage testing; and measuring the electricity use of refrigerators—all these are now commonplace. More and more programs use infrared camera technology in auditing, installations, and inspections. Whole-house weatherization technology has become the accepted approach, treating the dwelling as an interrelated system rather than an assortment of unrelated pieces. Many of the practices seen as the most technologically advanced in the emerging residential energy efficiency retrofit market were first developed, tested, and implemented by the WAP network.

While ARRA has undoubtedly afforded many new training opportunities for WAP managers and trainers, it has also raised the bar on the government’s expectations for the professionalism of the network. WAP grantees must develop comprehensive training plans as part of their annual application for funding and state plan process. In broad terms, these training plans must describe in detail how grantees will assess their own particular training needs. Managers need to assess who needs to be trained, who will be doing the training, where the training will be held, and the training methods best suited to the participants. It is imperative that states have a comprehensive, well-coordinated training program to meet the demands of today’s WAP. Training programs need to be sustainable and consistent, yet they must constantly evolve.

Before developing a training program, the state’s WAP must have a few basics in place. First, written standards and best practices must be up to date and must be an established component of WAP practices. Second, upper management must acknowledge and support the importance of the training program and must make sure that there is adequate funding budgeted to pay for it. Third, all levels of the WAP network should be involved as stakeholders, helping to create a program that is respected by the trainees and that encourages ongoing feedback and continuous adjustment.

Identifying Training Needs

There are several things to consider when identifying training needs. Typically, WAP staff will review the previous year’s monitoring reports to see if there are major trends or individual agency deficiencies that indicate the need for additional training. As WAP continues to evolve, new technologies, issues, and policy changes will require widespread training, and technologies already implemented will often need to be reinforced.

Once they have identified training needs, managers and trainers must first assess the knowledge and skills that are necessary to do the job in question. Next, they must assess the knowledge and skills that are already in place. Once they’ve discovered the gap between the two, they should figure out how to bridge that gap. For instance, if workers are already familiar with blower door diagnostics and routinely conduct pressure pan tests on ducts, the training for performing attic zonal testing is significantly different than it would be for workers who haven’t already put these skills to use.

Then there is the question of who needs to be trained. Arguably, all levels and worker classifications need constant and consistent training, with some kind of ongoing refresher courses. However, training program managers must determine priorities. For instance, ARRA has targeted the training needs of certain worker classifications and the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities that go with that work with an eye toward applying WAP technologies and techniques to a broader green energy efficiency retrofit market. The classifications most frequently targeted are auditor, crew chief, installer, and inspector. The performance of each of these positions is critical to energy savings in each home, and to the ultimate success of WAP’s mission.

With all the focus on technology and field practices, management training is sometimes pushed to the back burner. In numerous discussions with state WAP managers, I have heard them acknowledge that the local WAP manager is the person who defines the success of the local program. Time after time, we see that good local WAP directors incorporate into their program the many components needed for a thriving weatherization program. Even if they do not have thorough in-depth technical expertise, they have the management and personnel supervision skills to ensure that their crews and contractors conduct thorough audits and make high-quality installations to make each home as energy efficient as possible. The local WAP manager is also the person most responsible for program compliance, accountability, and performance. With that high level of responsibility, local WAP managers should never be overlooked as a training focus.

Who Does the Training?

Traditionally, on-staff state trainers conduct most of the training within a state’s WAP. There is solid reasoning behind this–after all, they are most familiar with the particulars, personnel, and needs, of the state’s program. Successful training programs have also brought in outside trainers to provide another perspective. Sometimes state training can become a little stale, and participants can benefit by seeing how other weatherization programs approach certain issues. Frequently, outside trainers will reinforce what the in-state trainers have already said, further showing trainees that WAP best practices are more and more universally consistent. Lastly, ARRA has bolstered the movement toward more partnerships by bringing together building performance experts, community colleges, trade schools, workforce investment boards, and other organizations involved in the expanding green residential energy efficiency movement.

Training Methodologies

Where should training take place? There are several options to consider, each with its own methodology. The DOE T&TA Plan emphasizes training centers, and DOE has invested considerable T&TA funding to set up new training centers and enhance existing ones. There is clear movement toward accreditation of weatherization training centers by DOE. Guidelines for accreditation will probably be defined in the next few months.

Training centers have several advantages. They have both classrooms and lab space to make possible a combination of lecture/visual aids/discussion and hands-on training. The environment is controlled—participants can move quickly from the classroom to the lab and back again. Precise training objectives are easier to accomplish, and a more standardized training environment makes possible uniform and consistent training. State-of-the art props, labs, and mock-ups continue to evolve. I have been amazed to see the progression of models of whole-house mock-ups used in training centers to demonstrate pressure diagnostics (see “Pressure House Learning in Real Time,” HE July/August ’10, p. 28 and “House of Pressure,” HE March/April ’10, p. 26).

The downside to training centers is that they are expensive to build and maintain. One has to question whether a training center is worth the investment if it is not intended to be used full time, or close to full time. It is probably not realistic to think all state weatherization programs can or should make such a commitment. Lastly, participants must usually travel to the training, so there can be a loss of production time, though presumably the skills and expertise gained make up for the downtime in the long run.

Several states have also used mobile training units, where trainers go to the local agencies to conduct the training. The main advantages of the mobile training units are that fewer people are traveling, the trainees are often more comfortable on their own turf, and frequently the hands-on training is conducted on an actual weatherization unit and involves assisting in production while trainees use their own tools and equipment. The hands-on experience in an actual home is as realistic as it gets. On the flip side, there can be problems that detract from the training focus. You may not have a controlled environment, as you do in a training center. Training is obviously subject to weather problems. Trainers must do a lot of up-front work to ensure that the right house is chosen—one that can be used to demonstrate all the identified training needs. Too often, too, you discover that you need a tool or material that is not on the jobsite. There can also be a tendency to get bogged down on a particular problem, or to focus too much on getting the job done, which can detract from the actual training objectives.

Training at conferences and in classrooms outside of training centers will always have a place in a training program. The obvious disadvantage is that there is seldom much opportunity for hands-on training. Field workers are more comfortable with hands-on work and are sometimes not fully engaged in a classroom environment. But there are several advantages to classroom training. More trainees can participate, and more topics and new ideas can be discussed. Perhaps the biggest advantage, and one that training managers should strongly encourage and facilitate, is that classroom training offers the opportunity for peer exchange. The discussion with both the experts and one’s peers—“how we do it in our agency” or “you might try this”—is often what trainees recall the most when they return from a conference.

Many new opportunities are emerging in online training and distance learning. This too has its advantages. No travel is required, and the training can often be done at the trainee’s convenience. Trainees can also repeat the training or specific parts of it. While online training has no hands-on component, in-depth illustrations and descriptions give trainees the knowledge they need to do a job and provide a strong introduction to the “how-to.”

Ideally, a good training program will incorporate several of the methodologies described above (see “A Little About WAP Personnel and Workers”).

Buy-in at All Levels

A successful training program needs buy-in at all levels. State managers, trainers, program monitors, local agency personnel, and the trainees all need to be involved in, and committed to, the training program.

State WAP managers need to support a comprehensive and sustainable training plan by providing proper funding; ensuring that there are clear and up-to-date standards, best practices, and field guides; adopting core competencies and the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) for various job descriptions; and involving stakeholders from all levels of the WAP.

Trainers need expertise and ongoing professional development. They also need to develop and improve curricula, develop props, understand the basics of adult education, develop an evaluation system to measure the effectiveness of their training, be responsive to the needs of the trainees, and help to reinforce training and best practices.

Monitoring staff should understand that they too have a role in training. They can observe field personnel at a jobsite and provide in-field T&TA and mentoring on-site. Monitors can use digital pictures taken during monitoring as real-life examples for training. Monitoring staff should continually evaluate training needs and recommend ways of meeting those needs in their reports.

A WAP grantee can develop a comprehensive plan, but the local agencies need to buy into the training program for it to be successful. All levels of the agency, from the executive director and WAP manager to the auditors, crews, and inspectors, should recognize the importance of training and never treat it as an inconvenience. Agency management can base employee development and career ladders on training and demonstrated performance. Agency managers should also develop a training plan for each employee and follow up on training events with in-house reinforcement and mentoring. There is no sense in sending employees to training if the trainees are allowed and/or expected to fall back into bad practices when they return.

The trainees themselves need to have the right attitude. They need to see training as an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills—an opportunity that offers them potential personal benefits. They need to be receptive to the training and participate in it fully, understanding that training should be an interactive process and ask questions when it is necessary and appropriate.

Getting buy-in at all levels will help validate a training program and make it both more sustainable and easier to implement and maintain. In order to create the buy-in, consider establishing a WAP network training committee made up of various members and levels of your state weatherization network. Hold regular meetings and/or conference calls. Formalize the training program so everyone is aware of training goals. Develop quality evaluations and assessments of the training and then carefully consider the recommendations. Discuss and consider establishing worker certifications and merit-based rewards. Various levels of worker classifications can give workers a career ladder and can motivate them to excel.

learn more

Go to the WAP Technical Assistance Center web site, www.WAPTAC.org, for a virtual library of all rules, regulations, policies, and procedures required by DOE’s WAP. To view the WAP Standardized Training Curricula, go to www.WAPTAC.org, and click on Training Resources/Training Tools/WAP Standardized Curricula. These curricula are comprehensive yet flexible tools, useful to both new and experienced instructors. Each module includes presentations, speaker notes, and other resources. All modules can be downloaded for free.

Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades is being finalized by DOE after a draft version was published, and the public was given an opportunity to comment on it. This comprehensive 600-page document will include in-depth sections on Standard Work Specifications, Technical Standards, Job Task Analyses, and Essential KSA. To follow the development of the Workforce Guidelines, go to www1.eere.energy.gov/wip/retrofit_guidelines.html.

Documentation and Certifications

Maintaining high-quality training records is critical for a sustainable training program. Records should be kept for courses. Records for each course should include the curriculum, lesson plans, date and venue, evaluations, participant lists, and test results. Likewise, records should be kept for trainees. Records for each trainee should document participation and attendance, test results, advancement through levels of study, and any certifications.

At the minimum, the DOE T&TA Plan strongly encourages states to consider certifications for WAP workers. Though there are no guarantees, certifications can raise the level of competence throughout the statewide program. Certifications can also provide recognition for WAP personnel who do consistently excellent work, and provide credentials for workers looking to advance in the WAP or energy efficiency field. They can stabilize the workforce and help pave the way for increased wages, respect, and professionalism. Certifications can help validate a training program by providing the means to measure the success of that program; setting standards for knowledge, skills, and abilities, and justifying the investment in training for both the state and local WAP providers.

The Future Looks Bright

WAP training initiatives are more robust than they have been in over 30 years. WAP grantees and local agencies are ideally positioned to improve their programs, provide their workforce with incentives and opportunities to advance, and position themselves as players in the growing residential energy efficiency retrofit movement.

Bob Scott is the Director of Energy Services at the National Association for State and Community Services Programs (NASCSP).

This article was sponsored by DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program, through the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
 

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