Extending Energy Efficiency Training Beyond the Classroom
Meeting the growing demand for supplemental energy efficiency training with real-world experience.
July 01, 2011
A version of this article appears in the July/August 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Classroom learning alone is not sufficient preparation for work in the field,” concludes Green Jobs in the Residential Energy Efficiency Industry, a report by the Home Performance Resource Center. And more than 160 companies nationwide that responded to the 2010 Efficiency First Workforce Survey consistently reiterated the need to supplement energy efficiency training with real-world experience “to expose workers to different circumstances and teach them how to safely deal with different kinds of problems encountered in real homes.”
Two training providers in the San Francisco Bay Area couldn’t agree more. That’s why Laney College and Rising Sun Energy Center have formed partnerships with several employers and organizations to offer internships that benefit energy efficiency students, home energy employers, and commercial and residential property owners.
“Hands-on learning is every bit as important as, or more important than, the concepts that students learn in the classroom,” says Peter Waring, an instructor in the Environmental Control Technology Department at Laney. “Field experience makes it much more real for students.” And students who have participated in an internship are stronger, more valuable candidates for employment, according to Elena Foshay, program manager for Rising Sun’s Green Energy Training Services.
Hiring managers agree that applicants with extensive field training are much more likely to be considered for a job opening. Kim Malcolm, executive director of Community Energy Services Corporation, believes on-the-job experience is essential for new hires. “Normally I would hire someone with good construction skills and experience, then train them in energy efficiency,” she says. “But recently we’ve hired four people with energy efficiency training and internship experience, and we’ve had really good success.”
When a new hire has both specialized training and work experience, employers benefit from shorter time to productivity, lower on-the-job training costs, and quicker return on investment.
Proven Track Record
How an employee functions in the field is usually a better indicator of performance than how that same employee functions in class. Internships allow companies to base hiring decisions on a candidate’s work experience as well as on his or her academic performance. An intern’s supervisor can provide greater insight, over a longer period of time, into a potential employee’s performance in real-world situations, which increases the likelihood of a successful hire.
Students who participate in internships or apprenticeships are more familiar with energy efficiency tools, processes, and solutions. In addition, they have more experience with the unique challenges posed by real homes. “Students work with the full diversity and complexity of residential and commercial buildings and get an opportunity to experience the quirkiness that each individual building in the field can exhibit,” notes Emily Courtney, director of Green Technology Education for Laney College. “Households are messy, compared to what you find in a classroom,” Malcolm agrees. “Navigating real households allows students to see the needs and the opportunities that might not be as obvious in a classroom environment.”
Faster Time to Productivity
Home energy employers spend a lot of time and money to provide on-the-job training, Courtney points out. “This is a very complex industry that requires a broad interdisciplinary understanding of building science and innovative energy efficiency and weatherization techniques.” Internships help to reduce on-the-job training costs for employers. “Typically it takes only one month, rather than up to six months, for a retrofitter or auditor who has participated in an internship to be fully independent on the job,” she says. More-experienced candidates also tend to require less supervision, which results in additional savings.
Improved Soft Skills
Interns also have more opportunities to develop nontechnical skills. “They learn the importance of things like being ready for work, being organized, and being able to communicate with their boss,” Malcolm says. Getting out and making contacts, interacting with various types of people, practicing presentation and delivery, meeting deadlines, being accountable to employers and clients, and learning how to conduct research are additional soft skills developed during an internship, notes Pamela Evans, green business coordinator for Alameda County. “Training that includes direct contact with businesses gives interns valuable skills and experience,” she says.
Alameda County’s Green Business program is one of several organizations working in partnership with Rising Sun and Laney College to provide graduates with internship opportunities. The Alameda County program offers free energy audits for small- and medium-sized companies seeking to become certified as green businesses. “We are leveraging this program to benefit the business community and boost the green-jobs effort in Alameda County, especially for entry-level employees and those in career transition,” explains Evans.
Interns get real-world experience visiting a variety of different building types. “It gives them a broader perspective on what energy efficiency means in different settings,” Evans says. “They go into it expecting things to be cookie-cutter. As they visit each subsequent building, they get an appreciation for the uniqueness of each situation.”
“It has helped me integrate my classroom training with real-world applications,” agrees Kean Ahern, a 35-year-old Berkeley resident going through a career transition. Rising Sun selected him for one of four internships, which are made available based on a competitive selection process. “I feel a lot more comfortable applying what I’ve learned on the job.”
The Green Business internships are doubly valuable because many of the skills learned while working with businesses are transferable to the residential sector.
“They learn a lot of soft skills in dealing with people,” Evans explains. Students begin to understand that they have a limited amount of time to deliver their message and get their work done. They hone their skills to deliver their key points succinctly. If they need to follow up, they learn other ways of communicating, such as e-mail. “They learn about flexibility and the need to sometimes work in a whirlwind atmosphere,” Evans notes.
Rising Sun students gain additional experience with everything from doing home energy audits and retrofitting to using computers and the internet, to developing leadership skills. “It’s unbelievable how much they blossom and grow,” Foshay observes.
Creating internships within hiring companies is another alternative. Employers find that the increased investment in time and resources is offset by the opportunity to “test drive” potential new employees. “The best indicator of what a graduate will do in the future is what they’ve done in the past,” Courtney says. “An internship gives employers a low-risk opportunity to test a permanent working relationship.”
Community Energy Services Corporation is a Berkeley, California, nonprofit and licensed general contractor that works with local governments, community organizations, and utilities to offer energy efficiency auditing and installations, solar consulting, and home repair to residents and businesses. The company was so pleased with the quality of the interns it hired that it decided to work with Laney and Rising Sun to create four in-house internships of its own.
An added benefit to companies hiring interns is that grants are sometimes available to subsidize the typical intern salary of $10–15 per hour. For example, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 administered through the Department of Labor subsidizes half of an intern’s wages for the first three months. Rising Sun and local One-Stop Career Centers help employers to set up in-house internships and navigate the paperwork.
“Whether they are looking for an intern or a full-time employee, a potential employer can contact us, send a job description, and we can prepare a prescreened portfolio of qualified candidates,” Courtney says. The Green Technology Employment program at Laney College evaluates students based on learning objectives designed by dozens of local employers. They collect feedback from instructors on soft skills such as timeliness and teamwork, then assess who fits the personality of the company. “That’s hard to know if you’re just looking at resumes,” Courtney explains. And she goes on to say, “Employers around the country are encouraged to contact us with their training specifications and job descriptions. We have highly trained graduates, many of whom are willing to relocate.”
“Once they are hired, we are there to support the employee to help them retain that job and make sure the employer is happy with the placement,” says Rising Sun’s Foshay. Referring to interns specifically, she adds, “They’re just amazing employees now. They’re really going to be an asset to whoever hires them.”
Tailor Training to Meet Industry Needs
Energy efficiency employers often struggle to find job applicants with the specific training and skills they desire. The predicament is expected to worsen as technology changes and the green-job market grows. Fortunately, companies have the opportunity to shape training programs to better meet their needs. Many training programs have employer advisory councils, where employers can provide valuable insights and forecasts that influence how energy efficiency students are selected and trained.
Green Jobs in the Residential Energy Efficiency Industry, a report by the Home Performance Resource Center, and the 2010 Efficiency First Workforce Survey results are available through:
Rising Sun Energy Center
Green Energy Training Services
Elena Foshay, Program Manager
Tel: (510)665-1501, Ext. 18
“We want the input and insights of local green employers so we can create an ideal energy efficiency workforce, trained to their specifications,” Courtney explains.
Laney focuses on training energy efficiency sales, auditing, and retrofitting professionals to BPI standards. Students are trained on the full spectrum of energy efficiency retrofitting skills, including green construction, weatherization and air sealing, combustion appliance safety, HVAC installation, and troubleshooting. The college provides solar training in design, sales, and installation, including certification by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).
More than 50 companies participate in Laney’s Industry Advisory Council. “Our successful partnership with employers begins with intensive collaboration, appropriate student selection, and in-depth training to employer specifications,” Courtney says.
Laney works closely with employers to identify forecasted job opportunities. Companies provide timely information about hiring forecasts and their ideal job applicant—knowledge, skills, characteristics, and so forth. With that information, the college can design selection and training procedures to meet industry demands.
“Advisors choose their level of participation,” Courtney explains. Some send job descriptions, some respond to surveys, and some attend the meetings once per semester to discuss the state of the industry and workforce training.
“The more information they give us about what they’re looking for, the more we can tailor our program to meet their needs.”
Rising Sun Energy’s Employer Council has a similar purpose. “Our curriculum was developed with a lot of input from employers,” Foshay says. It emphasizes skills that employers seek, such as building science theory, on-the-job safety, diagnostic tools to do energy audits, and residential energy efficiency retrofits.
Working together, training providers and hiring companies can produce exceptional job candidates who have the combination of classroom education and hands-on experience that is best suited to meet the needs of today’s energy companies.
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