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Building a Clean Energy Future, Respect for the People Who Will Build It

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

You don’t need to spend a great of time deal in the policy world before you hear a conversation about workforce development. In fact, the Energy Upgrade California incentive program was originally created as a workforce development solution. Flashback to 2008, the Great Recession: contractors were out of work and the economy was in a downward spiral. The incoming Obama administration designed a program to stimulate the economy. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was signed into law February of 2009 and was intended to save existing jobs and create new ones. Lots of ARRA funds flowed into the energy efficiency industry and hopes were bright.

An Abundance of Workforce Training

Contractors were excited to consider a new industry that offered good jobs that provided the social benefit of saving energy. Workforce education and training classes were abundant and droves of contractors filled the rooms to learn about building science, HVAC, business practices, and many other topics. In no time we had a large number of contractors who were trained, certified, and in many cases, had invested thousands of dollars in sophisticated testing equipment. They believed that when the economy turned around and the industry boomed, they would be well prepared to take advantage of the opportunity.

There was only one bump in the road. Try as they might, the Energy Upgrade California folks could not rally the public to spend large sums of money upgrading their homes. The industry languished and many thousands of dollars of test equipment sat idle in garages, collecting dust. Most of that equipment is likely still there today.

The Economy Has Picked Up

Flash forward to today: it’s 2017, interest rates are low, the recession is behind us people are investing in their homes again, and contractors are busy. General contracting is on fire right now, fueled by low interest rates and homeowners’ pent up ambitions to improve their homes. The residential remodeling sector is seeing a huge influx of dollars earmarked for home improvements and remodeling projects. Much of this investment is follow through on projects that were put on hold during the Great Recession. This is a good thing, as contractors are busy and the funds are flowing. And when contractors have more work than they can handle, the obvious choice is to hire some more help.

The problem now is, there’s no help available.

Without help you can’t grow and expand your capabilities. It’s no secret that one of the most challenging issues for contractors today is the lack of available workforce. I personally know a number of contractors including plumbers, electricians, cabinet makers, sheet rockers, and home performance contractors. The one thing I consistently hear is that there is a lack of available workers in the building trades. It seems that pretty much anybody in the trades that wants work is working today. As a result of the strong economy, there is no one left to hire.

There are a couple of reasons we find ourselves in this situation. First off, an entire generation of young folks who would typically enter the trades, chose not to during the recession. There was no work, so why go down that path? We can’t really blame them for that.

The Trades Are Not Valued

But there is another reason the workforce is dwindling, and this one’s a bit more philosophical: Society no longer appreciates people who actually use their hands to make a living the way it used to. We used to respect the trades, and suggest skilled trades as an alternative to college. It was often possible to make similar wages in the trades, without the four-year trek and expense of a college degree.

Today most high school aged kids see college as the only option to advancing their careers. It seems we have abandoned the idea that there might be another way to prepare yourself for a long-lasting and lucrative career path that does not involve spending thousands of dollars and several years in college.

At the same time, the cost of a four-year degree is staggering these days. It’s typical for recent grads to carry tens of thousands of dollars in debt upon graduation. Is the time and money spent really worth it? Part of the reason we’re facing a shortage of new workers is we have created an entire generation that believes that without a college education there is no future.

Mike Rowe, the host of the television show Dirty Jobs, has recognized the problem. He has created a foundation to try to educate young folks at let them know that there is an alternative to college, and that people should be proud to work with their hands. His foundation is called Profoundly Disconnected, and it’s worth a look. Rowe has partnered with industry and others to provide scholarships intended to help close the skills gap our country is currently facing. He is trying to bring awareness to the fact that many sectors of today’s economy lack skilled workers, and that as a result, jobs are abundant. This means there are plenty of good paying jobs available without the need or expense of a four-year degree.

The Challenge is Bigger In Our State and Industry

The construction trades in California are particularly challenged. How do we support and grow our fledgling industry when there is already a lack of available workforce? The challenge is even harder in the home performance industry, where working conditions can be pretty tough. Give a person the choice between crawling under a house to install some ductwork and digging a ditch in the sun, and many will choose the latter.

Many home performance contractors who are true to the cause have by and large abandoned their home performance efforts. Kitchen remodels, room additions, bathrooms, and more traditional construction projects are in full swing. Contractors who drank the kool-aide in 2009 and became true believers in home performance are today doing more conventional general contracting work. In most cases, it’s a matter of consumer demand. If people have money to spend and want remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, it makes sense to focus on kitchens and bathrooms.

Many contractors who, six years ago, spent 80 percent of their time on home performance and 20 percent on general construction now see those numbers reversed. Others have abandoned home performance altogether. Until we can create real consumer demand for home performance and energy efficiency I don’t think the trend is likely to change. And even if we see a major shift in priorities and home performance takes off, we face real challenges achieving market transformation and growth in the industry. Why? The same thing general contractors are dealing with now, lack of available workforce.

It is important to raise this concern, as the state has millions of dollars allocated for workforce education and training (WET), but until we recognize and understand our current workforce challenges, throwing money at the situation will not fix the problem. Utilities fund robust training programs that are available free of cost and yet the classrooms sit empty. Trainers and teachers are sending out group email messages to try and get attendance up, which will preserve their jobs. The problem is that there are no potential workers interested in the information that is being provided.

Green Energy Jobs Are Good Jobs

What we need is an awareness that there is an alternative to college. We need to educate young people and let them know that skilled trades are a viable option. The fast-growing “green energy” sector could be a great choice for those looking to go to work without spending four years and thousands of dollars on a college education. We should encourage youth to enter the trades and build skills that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families. Our industry needs more young and passionate people to enter the field so they can learn the hard-earned lessons from their elders.

Without the people on the ground doing real work, our industry will never reach the scale we need to achieve true market transformation. The problem is real. We need to make sure people are aware and encourage others to join our efforts. The rewards of being part of something that is helping build the future for upcoming generations is exciting. We need to support young folks and encourage them to be a part of building the clean energy future.

Charles Cormany
Executive Director
Efficiency First California

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