Despite some short-term challenges, including the fiscal cliff and the potential end of the Production Tax Credit, an emphasis on green jobs hiring is clearly going to bring long-term benefit for the cleantech industries. But as we have explored in previous stories on Green & Clean, there aren’t enough trained skilled workers who can step in to these jobs.
But training programs, looking long term to the future, continue to spring up across the country, aided by federal grants and nonprofits, and one of the most inspiring ones comes from an area that isn’t thought of as a cleantech hot spot: the Bronx.
In New York City’s northernmost borough, arguably most famous for being the home of the New York Yankees but also for having a rough-and-tumble reputation, an organization called the Consortium for Workers Education (CWE) has been been training adults and recent college graduates for green jobs. Thanks in large part to money from the 2009 federal stimulus, as well as aid from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Training Administration and a Pathways Out of Poverty grant, the CWE is a private nonprofit agency that provides a wide array of workforce preparation, industry-specific training and employment services to more than 70,000 New Yorkers annually.
Part of CWE’s program is the Green Jobs Initiative, and it uses the organization’s Center for Environmental Workforce Training (EWT) to offer classes and training — typically over three to eight days — to adults interested in green jobs. In just more than three years, the CWE and the EWT have produced 400 graduates, about half of whom have gone on to find jobs in the cleantech industries.
“We’ve had success with a group that spans the gamut, from people changing careers in their 30s and 40s to people who are younger and got off the educational track,” says Michael Frey, director of business relations for CWE. “What we’re trying to do is get people ready, in a short period of time, to step right in to a company’s operation and be a valuable employee.”
The most important part of what CWE does is hands-on job training placement, and it is here that Frey and the CWE have had success. Through the creation of Big Apple Green, a business network for New York City green businesses and enterprises, Frey and his group have begun developing relationships and business agreements with 65 New York City companies to place newly trained workers in green jobs.
Aided by grant money, the Big Apple Green subsidizes 50 percent of CWE graduates’s salaries while they work on a “tryout” basis at small businesses. After a typically six- to eight-week period, the company can decide whether to keep a person as a permanent employee.
“Small businesses are usually less willing to take on someone right from a program like ours,” Frey explains. “They may have only four to five people working on a job and need everyone to be up to speed. That’s why it’s so important that our people (from CWE) are ready to work when we place them.”
One CWE success story is OnForce Solar, a solar energy systems company based in the Bronx. Thanks to a grant from JP Morgan Chase, OnForce Solar President David Sandbank says he took on six CWE graduates in August and has kept five of them as full-time employees. The company has a staff of 30.
“It’s worked out way better than I ever thought,” Sandbank says. “[CWE's] training program taught them the basics of solar, but also gave them some hands-on training as well.
“There are a lot of programs that don’t work,” Sandbank adds. “This one actually did.”
At OnForce Solar, graduates like Charlene Schoen have begun to excel as solar panel installers. Schoen, 45, says she used to work with the Horticultural Society of New York but heard about CWE and “gave it a shot, because everything’s going green.”
Schoen took two classes at CWE, one for two days and another for eight. After her second tryout week at OnForce Solar, she received news that she was hired as an installer.
“The panels are bigger than I am sometimes, so it’s hard work,” she says with a laugh. “But this has really motivated me to learn more and eventually get certified and become a solar engineer.”
Another CWE success story is the Association for Energy Affordability (AEA), a nonprofit that does energy efficiency training.
The organization has hired six of the seven CWE grads that came to work for it.
“A lot of them turned out to be exceptional, really eager to learn and receptive to training,” says Jeff Laino, a senior program manager at AEA. “The students had a good set of skills when they came to us, and we’ve been able to train them for the jobs we wanted them to do.”
The businesses and organizations that have hired CWE graduates say they are obviously looking for those with technical knowledge of how to do an energy efficiency survey at someone’s home or how to properly install a solar panel, but add that there are other important skills for students to learn.
David Hepinstall, president of AEA, says more professional and business skills would benefit program participants.
“I think helping these folks learn interviewing skills, dressing professionally, understanding promptness and that commitments need to be honored — those kinds of things should be a focus,” Hepinstall says. “When we’re looking at full-blown construction energy jobs, we’re looking for people with master’s degrees, and obviously those people will be more polished. But when we’re hiring installers and assessors, we need people who can be professional and act professional at all times.”
Lucille Consorti, president of New York City-based Veteran Pipe Covering, says she would like to see training programs and business placements work even closer together.
“It would be great if specific students were given specific knowledge of the companies they would be placed in,” Consorti says, “so they could hit the ground running faster when they get here.”
Frey expects programs like CWE will continue to flourish as more and more businesses realize their benefits.
“You make the business feel like it’s in their best interest to hire our graduates, and then when they see the successful workers, they want to hire more,” Frey said. “I see us having relationships with these businesses for years to come.”