Free training in foundational skills gives unemployed adults a fresh start

By Lesia Winiarskyj

After two years of college and a 30-year career in printing, Peter Collins found himself out of work. Laid off since 2008, he's been supporting himself through a mix of odd jobs, including painting, tree cutting, and snow removal.

"Three and a half years later," he says, "it was time for a change."

Scott Lush, also unemployed, agrees.

"I needed to rebuild my life. Rather than stay home and wallow, I'm doing something."

Lush and Collins, both from Manchester, are among 20 Greater-Hartford-area residents who've dusted off their notebooks, sharpened their pencils, and taken a step closer to landing a job in one of Connecticut's hottest fields.

The men have completed a six-week, full-time training program: Academic Skills Enhancement for Energy-Related Careers: designed to prepare them for more advanced training and potential jobs in energy, a field that's growing and poised for even greater job growth. Classes were held at the Capitol Region Educational Council (CREC) in Hartford.

Ranging in age from 21 to 51, all 20 program participants have either a high school diploma or GED, and a few have college credits. Many have backgrounds in construction, warehouse work, and transportation, sectors that shed significant jobs during the recession. (Construction, says CBIA economist Pete Gioia, was the hardest hit of any industry.) As a result of the six-week program, participants have earned the ACT National Career Readiness Certificate, a portable credential identified by the Center for Energy Workforce Development as the entry-level standard for the energy industry.

Laying the Foundation

"This class has given participants important foundational skills and networking opportunities," says Deb Presbie, project coordinator for CBIA's Education Foundation. With additional skills training, she adds, they will be able to pursue opportunities as solar PV installers, technical salespeople, energy auditors, utility lineworkers, electrical splicers, gas distribution mechanics, underground utility workers, residential energy services network (RESNET) raters, and more.

"The doors this program could open are life-changing," says Presbie. "Each participant gets a career advisor, networking opportunities, and job placement assistance. There aren't many opportunities like this out there."

Academic Skills Enhancement for Energy-Related Careers was made possible by a grant from the Workforce Solutions Collaborative of Metro Hartford (WSCMH), whose mission is to convene employers, educators, government, service providers, and philanthropic organizations to address regional workforce development needs. CBIA's Education Foundation manages energy/utilities workforce development initiatives on behalf of the collaborative.

New Rules, New Opportunities

"Connecticut residents searching for work often aren't aware of the need for qualified people in the energy sector," says Judy Resnick, executive director of CBIA's Education Foundation. Energy system upgrades and innovations, together with anticipated retirements of baby boomers, are creating a wave of job openings in both traditional and green/alternative energy companies as well as "downstream" jobs: for example, insulation and window installers.

2012 revisions to the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), which ratchet up energy performance requirements for residential and commercial buildings, are also driving demand for qualified workers. New IECC requirements include better insulation, a tighter thermal envelope, improved HVAC and electrical systems, and more energy-efficient windows, doors, skylights, and lighting: all of which require people who can do the job right.

Stephen Pelton, president of CBIA member company Pelton Builders, answers questions about energy-related careers.

"There is a tremendous amount of growth in this industry: more than our industry can handle with the number of skilled people available," says Stephen Pelton, president of Pelton Builders. "We need people with the right core skills, people who can calculate air changes per hour, or draft, or the size of a cylinder for a furnace, people who can correctly estimate how many bags of insulation a project will require."

And that's where the six weeks of training comes in.

Business-Driven Curriculum

"This training was created based on input from the very businesses that will need new employees," says Resnick. "Businesses like Pelton, Northeast Utilities, Aegis Energy Services, Tuscany Design Build/Tuscany Solar, Victory Energy Solutions: all of whom sent guest speakers to this program to explain what kinds of jobs are available and what types of credentials are needed." Speakers from community colleges and organized labor also led career exploration discussions, and the United Way of Connecticut provided information on 2-1-1 support services.

Last year, with a planning grant from the Workforce Solutions Collaborative of Metro Hartford, the Education Foundation conducted a study of energy-sector employers' workforce needs. "Employers told us they were having trouble finding workers with strong foundational skills: such as math, communication, and teamwork. This course was built to address those needs."

Combining traditional classroom instruction and self-paced online education, the six-week class covered introductory algebra, scientific notation, fundamentals of geometry and trigonometry, critical thinking, applied technology, and locating and reading for information: all in the context of energy-related work.

"Completing this training allows individuals to enter the workforce with the potential to eventually move into high-skill, high-wage jobs," says Resnick.

Graduates of the program were honored at a ceremony at CBIA's offices on April 5. Twelve of the graduates were selected to participate in an intensive 10-week electric/gas utility training leading to industry-specific training and certificates. This additional training runs from April through June at Northeast Utilities.

Program Funders

The following organizations provided funding for the Academic Skills Enhancement for Energy-Related Careers program:

  • American Savings Foundation
  • Capital Workforce Partners
  • Community Chest of New Britain and Berlin
  • Hartford Foundation for Public Giving
  • National Fund for Workforce Solutions
  • Nutmeg Foundation
  • Prudential Foundation
  • United Way of Central and Northeast Connecticut

Special thanks to TD Bank and CT STEM Jobs.

More information

Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer/editor at CBIA. She can be reached at lesia.winiarskyj@cbia.com.