Founded in 1965 as part of the Federal “War on Poverty,” The South Middlesex Opportunity Council (SMOC) is the designated multi-service, anti-poverty agency headquartered in downtown Framingham, Massachusetts. SMOC’s Green Jobs Academy (GJA) offers education and hands-on training to installers, crew chiefs, auditors, quality controllers and contractor/owners providing a career path in the growing field of weatherization and conservation.  SMOC’s GJA is an IREC Accredited Training provider for its retrofit installer technician, crew leader and quality control inspector courses.

As Director of the GJA, Gwenn Weiser manages and coordinates the weatherization and conservation training programs. Though she’s furiously busy, she made time to visit with us about GJA’s work. Here’s our conversation.

IREC: Gwen, you came to SMOC/GJA with a strong background in training and certification programs. Why did SMOC create its Green Jobs Academy? Who or what was the driver? Was there a local, community need?

Weatherization training at SMOC's Green Job AcademyGW: In response to a well-documented significant demand for weatherization services and the clear labor gap to meet this need, the SMOC founded GJA in 2010. SMOC is in a unique position to offer this training program due to its 36 years of weatherization work through our Energy and Financial Assistance Division, whose experience also includes repairing and replacing heating systems and inefficient large appliances. SMOC’s Workforce Development division provides academic education, workforce development education and job placement services for people living in the communities.

IREC: Knowing the demand means you have a relationship with industry. Do you work together so closely that you know what skills they’re looking for in these rapidly changing times? 

GW: Yes. We work closely with the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the Massachusetts utilities to ensure appropriate training is offered to local industries so that the workforce has the skills they need to perform their jobs effectively and successfully. Here’s a quick rundown of the accreditations or recognitions we’ve acquired:

  • IREC Accredited Training Provider for our retrofit installer technician, crew leader and quality control inspector courses
  • WAP Network Verified Weatherization Training Center in New England (we’re the only one in MA)
  • GJA training approved by Massachusetts Utilities Program Administrators
  • GJA training approved for Trade, Section 30, ITA and Workforce Training Funds (WTF), Massachusetts Department of Workforce Development
  • GJA approved provider for Building Performance Institute (BPI) and Construction Supervisor License (CSL) Continuing Education Units (CEUs)

IREC: What inspired GJA to go after the IREC credential?

GW: Benjamin Goldstein, the project lead for the National Residential Retrofit Guidelines with DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program wrote about the implementation of national weatherization training standards, explaining that the recent proliferation of energy efficiency workforce training programs has shown “the need for an objective third-party assessment, so that workers may distinguish between different quality programs and providers as they seek to invest in their career development. Accreditation enables this kind of independent assessment, and the IREC accreditation is unique because it focuses exclusively on energy efficiency and renewable energy training.  While the accreditation is voluntary, it is an effective way for the DOE’s Weatherization Assistance Program to assess the progress of its weatherization training centers…as an objective means of demonstrating the quality of their programs and differentiating themselves in the training marketplace.”

We felt the IREC accreditation would strengthen our credibility in the weatherization and energy efficiency industry in an effort to bring an increased quality to our trainings by offering nationally recognized industry credentials. GJA would thus continue to develop a valuable workforce resource for the weatherization private sector contractor base.

IREC: Obviously you place a high value on accreditation and certifications which is good for both training providers and students. Training providers can offer relevant skills and students know they’re getting the most relevant, timely information for a career path.

GW: Exactly. The GJA has developed a comprehensive model for training and placing underemployed / unemployed individuals in entry-level jobs in the weatherization and energy conservation industry, as well as providing additional levels of training leading to industry recognized certifications that allow the workers to climb a career ladder and advance in position and pay (we use the current training and guidelines set by The Department of Energy (DOE).

In our first year, GJA focused on training individuals as installers. This training included industry recognized certification in RRP Lead Renovation and OSHA 10. In 2011, GJA offered Crew Chief classes, along with Combustion Safety, Advanced Blower Door and OSHA 30. In 2012, ASHRAE62.2 was offered and in 2013, Lead Safe Weatherization was added to further meet grant requirements and training needs of the WAP and Massachusetts Utilities. And in October 2013, we achieved our IREC accreditation for a training provider.

IREC: What’s your placement record look like? Is it good locally? Regionally?

OJT Site Visit @SMOC's Green Jobs AcademyGW: It’s been phenomenal. We’ve exceeded outcomes specified by funding sources. To date, of our weatherization installers graduates, 171 were placed in OJT and 169 obtained or remained in permanent jobs. The GJA holds Memorandum of Understandings (MOU’s) with 70+ employer partners to provide on-the-job training, mentoring and permanent job placement.  GJA maintains a 96% Q1 retention rate and a 78% Q2 retention rate.

IREC: These numbers reinforce what we talked about earlier—that strong industry relationships are fundamental to building a local, quality-trained clean energy workforce.

GW:  Most definitely. In addition to installer training, we’ve trained 120 as Crew Chiefs, 212 in Combustion Safety, 106 in ASHRAE62.2, 93 in Advanced Blower Door, 271 in Lead Safe Weatherization, and 83 in OSHA 30.

IREC: Sounds like classes are full!  With the recent news from the White House about federal investments in energy efficiency, what advice would you give to incoming students considering entering the clean energy field?

GW: While everyone has their own idea of what ‘clean’ and ‘green’ means, ultimately if an organization’s mission focuses on sustainability and being more energy conscious then young men and women should continue to focus on ‘traditional’ degrees. A traditional degree, along with their passion for clean energy means they can be an accountant for a solar or wind power company, a computer technician for a bio fuel company, or an office administrator for an organization that provide organic products. The field is wide open to young men and women.

IREC: What advice would you give to schools that might be considering starting a clean energy program?

GW: There’s still a challenge to keep funding streams continuous. Initially, GJA was established through grants from the US DOE US DOL. These funds enabled SMOC to build-out a permanent weatherization training facility for weatherization training, subsidized on-the-job training (OJT), and job placement for low-income and unemployed individuals preparing them for entry-level living-wage jobs in the weatherization and energy conservation industry. The GJA received further funding from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to train and place installers, and the Amelia Peabody Charitable Fund to provide transportation for on-the-job trainees. Within the past year, the GJA has received additional funding from the City of Worcester and two grants from the Commonwealth Corporation totaling. So you can see, we’re constantly on the lookout for funding streams to keep our programs strong.

I’d add that finding and keeping experienced, skilled instructors is also a factor in maintaining a reputable program. We’ve been fortunate to take advantage of our Energy Conservation Services division of SMOC and their many years of expertise in the industry.

IREC: I’m sure there are things in the queue to keep the program current and relevant. What’s next in the queue for SMOC re clean energy programs? 

GW: We don’t slow down or assume things will continue along as they have.  That said, we will continue to work closely with the WAP and the Mass Utilities to ensure we are providing resources and training the industry requires.

IREC:  You’ve been at this for some time now. What’s surprised you the most about this work? 

GW: It’s interesting, the many definitions of ‘clean’ and ‘green’ in the industry but the bottom line is that we all are “helping the community and the environment” by being more energy conscious in whatever ways we can. We feel like we’re making a difference.

All images courtesy of SMOC Green Jobs Academy