Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades: a conversation with NREL’s Dr. Richard Knaub

by Jane Pulaski
April 12, 2011 

I walked into Dr. Richard Knaub’s presentation, Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades at the 2011 Clean Energy Workforce Education Conference last month in Saratoga Springs, NY, just as he asked the question, “how many of you change your own oil?”  Did I wander into the wrong session? Was I at the wrong conference?

Actually, no. According to Knaub (and others), there’s a right way to do something, and a not-so-right way. Not surprisingly, doing it the right way is better.

Whether changing your oil or insulating your attic, you want the person doing the job to know what they’re doing–to do it right, efficiently, correctly, and safely—the first time.

Known as standard work specifications, or SWS, the simple, written descriptions explain how to perform specific tasks safely, efficiently, and of the highest quality.  Standard work specifications, when correctly used by the workforce, help eliminate inefficiencies and waste, nurture continued improvement, and assure the consumer of a quality product or service.  And now, thanks to the work of NREL and DOE, guidelines for the energy efficiency workforce using SWS are almost ready for prime time.

Knaub, a Project Leader in Weatherization & Workforce Development, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has been actively participating in the Weatherization training and standards development both at the state and national levels for the last several years.  NREL has been leading the development of the Guidelines (no small task).  In fact, according to Knaub, some 300 stakeholders have been involved in the process.  Technicians, trainers, home performance contractors, labor, healthy homes professionals, building scientists and other experts in the building trades and retrofit industry have been at the table for this project.

Because it’s such a big deal (and voluminous–620 pages), I wanted to know more—how this got started in the first place, and when we might see the final product.  Richard was kind enough to answer some questions about SMS for us. Here’s that conversation:


 

IREC:  Richard, weatherization programs have been around for a very long time. Surely the weatherization workforce was using something, was trained to some set of standards. But these guidelines are different—I’m guessing they’re a vast improvement over what’s been in place.

RK:  Weatherization programs have been around for some 35 years, and yes, there were training resources that were developed by the WAP Trainers Consortium.  However, there was no national requirement for either the training or for the work performed, so there was tremendous variation between states.

 

IREC:  Like a patchwork quilt.  But these new guidelines seem to represent a massive shift to something much more sophisticated.

RK:  Yes they do. They are still voluntary guidelines because the federal government is not creating new standards on its own. However, what the government can do is facilitate the development of industry consensus standards. For example, this effort included more than 300 industry experts from around the country.

 

IREC:  But the draft document says Workforce Guidelines for Home Energy Upgrades. The document contains the standard work specifications, right?

RK: Yes, it does, and this set of guidelines represents a consensus on standard work specifications for home energy upgrades.

IREC:  Even for those of us who aren’t so intimately involved in the world of standards or work quality specifications, I think we all get that it’s important—that there’s a right way and a not-so-right way to do things. I mean, don’t we all want things to work well to have work performed by well-qualified workers?

RK:  Yes we do. The Recovery Through Retrofit report helped identify that there was lack of clear, understandable information on energy efficient retrofits and that there was a need for a set of national guidelines to develop a skilled workforce performing quality work.

 

IREC:  I’m guessing industry is deeply committed to this. What, or who, were the drivers here for this?

RK:  Well, there were more than 300 contributors to the process, some of whom were representing their organizations. It’s is a little difficult to single out any individual organizations, but it is important to note that industry groups such as BPI, RESNET, The Home Builders Institute, and NAHB Research Center contributed. Manufacturers such as Owens Corning, Knauf Insulation, and Johns Manville were involved, as well as manufacturer organizations including Spray Polyurethane Foam Alliance and the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association.

 

IREC:  Clearly, industry has lots to gain with a highly trained workforce. But, tell me… which came first, the standard work specifications or the job task analyse (JTA)s?

RK:  In their simplest form, SWS define the minimum requirements for high-quality work and the conditions necessary to achieve the desired outcomes of a given energy efficiency retrofit measure. Standard Work Specifications are outcome driven, but not prescriptive. When applicable, SWS are based on existing technical standards. SWS’s fill a critical niche in the “standards landscape.”   A Job Task Analysis (JTA) is the product of a specific process that determines everything needed to do a particular job.  So, the JTA would indicate everything a person requires to do a job up to the standard work specification. The first drafts of the standard work specifications came before the first drafts of the Job Task Analyses.

 

IREC:  And both of those—the SWS and JTA—are in the guidelines… all 620 pages of them. Can you talk a little bit about process? You mentioned a couple of times that over the course of the project, some 300 experts were involved. And in your presentation from the 2011 CEWEC, you had a really helpful “who’s on first?” time line. It looks like it’s been on a pretty fast track.

RK:  Yes, it was very fast, but we were working with an industry and contractors who understand that time is money. The first 60 experts addressed energy efficiency, and then experts in the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), the Healthy Homes initiative out of EPA, and Worker Safety experts reviewed their work. With some of the SWS, it was a question of going from better to best.

Then, we needed a reality check from the industry and we got it. They had a lot to say. We also needed eight different government agencies to agree with the work that had been done. This was no small feat, and was largely due to the diligence of Benjamin Goldstein, the Program Lead for EERE’s workforce initiatives, who kept in contact with the reviewers.

From there, we created a special website designed to collect comments from the public in such a way that we could identify exactly where the comment applied in the 620-page document. We sent links to that website and an invitation to review the guidelines to more than 1.5 million e-mail addresses in order to ensure we reached people who might be able to contribute to making the SWSs better.  People stepped up, commented, and we are in the final stages of revising the document now in order to bring in their improvements.

 

IREC:  Wow—on a variety of levels!  As I recall, when you gave your presentation, you said more than 900 public comments were received.    And on the federal side of the equation, the departments of Agriculture, Education, Labor, HHS, HUD, EPA, and EEOC… a veritable alphabet soup of feds provided comment. I’m dizzy just thinking about collecting AND reading all of them. But I think that says a lot—that there was interest from the widest swathe of stakeholders in identifying gaps, and in bringing together the right team. The people involved seemed as if they were collectively focused on improving the process and the final product—a highly trained workforce.  Indulge me—I’m going to say “wow” again.  According to the time line, the final guidelines are due to hit the streets in June. Is this still the target release date?

RK:  Yes, we are going through a professional edit and a professional indexing, and this will be a high quality document. In addition, my colleagues, Chuck Kurnik and Linda Giudice, are producing a report explaining how each of those 900 comments was addressed in creating the final draft of the guidelines. We were serious about wanting public comment.

 

IREC:  No kidding. But I wonder… with so many people involved in the process,  was there (generally) agreement in the standards? And was there concern about making the guidelines too difficult, or—from those on the other side—not challenging enough?

RK:  No, really there has been a great deal of consensus.

 

IREC:  I’m glad to hear it. I think these guidelines would really help training providers by providing a set  of JTAs to use for training.  And those same JTAs should also help the workforce get trained to a standard that encourages upward mobility. Oh, and it also helps that the consumer gets a better product and/or service. We all win.

RK:  Those are exactly our goals and the goals of the industry members who helped with the process.

 

IREC:  So I must ask… during all this time, what has surprised you most about the process?

RK:  That so much was accomplished so quickly with so much agreement.

 

IREC:  That surprises me as well.   I guess the timing (and need) for these SWS and guidelines was right. What happens next…what’s your next assignment?

RK:  My next assignment is to work with the industry to develop a set of national certifications based on the JTA so that we can have a certified workforce to carry out the standard work specifications. The Recovery Through Retrofit report identified this as another barrier to the development of a thriving home performance contracting market.

 

IREC:  Sounds like the perfect sequel. I’d like to circle back and learn more when this gets up and running. Thanks for the conversation, Richard.

P.S. As a recovering bureaucrat, it’s noteworthy (and memorable) when things move quickly and harmoniously through the system.  As with Richard’s work with the Guidelines, so, too, with this interview.  Not only was he incredibly speedy in responding to my requests for information, he was delightfully easy to work with. And when he ran this upstairs for internal (and external) review, it turned around in lightning speed.  As Richard’s tagline for his presentation said, ‘we’re from the government and we’re here to help.’  I agree wholeheartedly.  jp

 

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