Weatherization program could help change job, education climate

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Andy Bonoban moved to Minneapolis from Chicago last year to be with his sweetheart. As he was moving north, the economy was heading south. Once here, he applied for 55 jobs over a four-month stretch, everything from consulting jobs and graphic design to construction positions. In February, the former corporate librarian got a job as an energy auditor with the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, one of the jobs that should be getting a kick start under the federal stimulus package.

“It had been a long search,” said Bonoban, who had worried about having to settle on a lesser job. “It is a good career direction.”

A lot of people are looking for a similar job break and queuing up for retraining in the new economy. Bonoban himself still needs more training. He is going to Cloquet this week to take a one-week course on residential energy auditing offered by Dunwoody College of Technology.

Resources for Training
Dunwoody College of Technology
Minneapolis Community and Technical College
Summit Academy
Center for Energy and Environment
iseek, (Internet System for Education and Employment Knowledge)

He has to go to Cloquet because it is a high-demand class. Dunwoody’s Minneapolis offerings were already filled for the near term and they only recently began taking the course on the road around Greater Minnesota.

The college started offering energy auditor training in October with the help of government grants. Mike Anderson, Dunwoody’s director of custom training, said it started with one class of 15 students every month. By January, they had a significant waiting list. Dunwoody increased class size to 20-25 per class and went to two classes a month. It has added classes in Greater Minnesota, starting with Cloquet. Brainerd, Bemidji, Mankato and Rochester are all possible future sites. As early as next month, Dunwoody could expand to three classes a month.

“The fact that the stimulus money is coming and dislocated workers are trying to get back to work—whatever the case may be—the need for the class has gone from a bit of interest in October in 2008 to overwhelming interest in March of 2009,” Anderson said.

Weatherization work heats up

The stimulus package’s weatherization funding will not only improve energy conservation; it will help create jobs.

William Davis, president and chief executive officer of Community Action of Minneapolis, said his agency typically weatherizes 350 homes a year. With the stimulus money, it expects to increase that number somewhere between 1,400 and 1,800, about a four-fold increase.

Cynthia Webster, energy program director for the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties, projects similar growth. If all goes on schedule, she expects the stimulus money to arrive mid-May.

The stimulus money will have statewide impact, but here’s the job calculus for Community Action of Ramsey & Washington, as Webster explained it. The agency now has four energy auditors on staff. It will add two to four more. That’s a start.

The agency also has four two-person insulating crews, she said. With the new money, it will add two more insulating crews and contract for four more crews. It also has separate contracts with 10 mechanical companies that clean and tune furnaces and do other work. The contractors told Webster they would ramp up from 49 crews to 78 crews.

The increase in weatherization will finger out further. For instance, the agency buys a semi-load of cellulose insulation each month (made in Wisconsin, bought through a Hopkins distributor). Webster said once the stimulus money starts that order would at least double.

Her agency also is ordering more blower doors, part of the equipment needed to do energy audits. It buys them from the Minneapolis-based Energy Conservatory, located in the Phillips neighborhood’s Green Institute.

“We are on the waiting list now,” Webster said of the blower door order. “They are backed up. People from all over the country are buying their product.”

Schools respond to training needs

As new stimulus money hits, one of two problems could happen. One is that there might not be enough trained workers in a particular field to do the work. On the other hand, if education systems overdo it, they could create an oversupply of workers in a particular field.

Jess Niebuhr, dean for workforce development, continuing education and customized training at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, said area education institutions are collaborating. For weatherization programs, MCTC is working with Summit Academy, Dunwoody College and the Center for Energy and Environment.

Summit likely will focus on weatherization training, she said. Dunwoody is doing the energy auditor training. MCTC would focus on a technician-level program where students learn how to audit larger building systems, such as heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems or electrical systems. The Center for Energy and Environment is providing technical advice.

Gail O’Kane, system director for education-industry partnerships for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, said MnSCU is talking with state leaders to match training opportunities with the stimulus money.

“It is hard to say what the programs will be,” she said. “We are working on it very quickly.”

By June, MnSCU expects to add an energy career component to iseek, (Internet System for Education and Employment Knowledge) a state-run web site with information on Minnesota careers, employment, education and more. (The web site already has a section on green careers.)

Part of MnSCU’s task is to redesign existing programs for carpenters and electricians to include green principles. Some of that curriculum is already in place, but is not promoted as “green” training.

“This week, we are calling every single one of our campuses to ask them exactly what they are doing in terms of energy efficiency, renewable energy and other green-related areas,” O’Kane said in a March 13 interview.

Scott Russell is a journalist. He wrote for the Southwest Journal and Skyway News (now the Downtown Journal) in Minneapolis from 1999-2005. He also wrote for The Capital Times, a Madison Wisconsin daily, from 1993-1999.

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