R.I. Workers and Employers Turning Green

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

Building a green economy may differ from the kinds of building that Rhode Island’s construction workers usually perform, but they are similar in one fundamental way: you won’t get far without the right tools.

Programs around the state are giving workers those tools, in the form of the skills, experience and certifications necessary to lead the state to a greener economy.

Building Futures Rhode Island’s Energy Training Partnership is one of those programs. The partnership gives low-income and minority residents of Providence the opportunity to succeed in energy-efficient building and renewable energy jobs.

It accomplishes this by leveraging a century-old union apprenticeship model, described by director Andrew Cortes as “one of the best kept workforce development secrets out there.”

Seven unions have committed to offering apprenticeships to a total of 650 entry-level workers through the program. Each apprenticeship lasts from three to five years, and contains green building modules. Unions in the partnership also are committed to using these same training modules as skill upgrades to 850 displaced journeymen.

In addition, Building Futures leads a five-week pre-apprenticeship program for up to 100 unemployed youth. Participants receive green skills, GED services and employment coaching. Graduates may then apply to one of the apprenticeships offered by participating unions.

“We focus on leveraging that registered apprenticeship model,” Cortes said, “because there’s no way that anybody could mimic the investment in workforce training that’s already happened in the unions.”

Moreover, Cortes said, unions have longstanding relationships with local businesses. Through labor agreements with project owners, unions can assure that apprentices find opportunities to work and train.

“We’re working on both ends of the spectrum,” he said. “It’s not like we’re training people in a vacuum. We’re training people in the context of the market.”

The Green Pathways Out of Poverty program, run by the city of Providence, is open to low-income and low-literacy individuals, ex-offenders, public housing residents and veterans and aims to eliminate barriers to workforce entry.

Now in the second of five 16-week training cycles, it intends to train at least 190 individuals.

Each training cycle begins with remedial academic services and case management services such as job place etiquette and job placement assistance. The second segment consists of training — provided by the Apeiron Institute and Ecotope — in energy-efficient construction, green renovation and deconstruction, renewable energy and lead/asbestos removal. In the last 10 weeks, trainees participate in the “greening” of four homes in Olneyville donated by the housing authority.

The program places graduates, who receive four to five certificates apiece, with private companies, unions and nonprofits. The Workforce Solutions Board pays for the first six months of their salary, provided employers commit to providing on-the-job training.

Tanya Harris of Green Pathways Out of Poverty said this program has given hope to people who need it the most. She tells the story of a student whose wife had just given birth to twins.

“We expected him to be out for a couple of days. But on Monday morning, he comes in and says, ‘My wife and I talked about it. It’s important for me not to miss a day. This helps me get a job. It’s for my babies.'"

“Hearing that," Harris said, “was just awe-inspiring.”

The Energy Training Partnership and Green Pathways Out of Poverty programs hope that the emerging green economy will offer opportunities to those excluded from the mainstream economy. Through these programs, say their directors, participants not only get a better chance at finding a job, but they also can take pride in becoming part of the state’s new green workforce.

Meanwhile, other programs are training the people who, it is hoped, will hire the graduates of these programs.

Last month, the Apeiron Institute began its fourth cycle of energy audit training. A total of 60 students have graduated from this program, each obtaining nine certificates that open the door to a job or to starting a company.

Executive Director Mark Kravatz said training this group was key to spurring a green economy. “I looked at the market and decided we had to build the infrastructure for employers to compete in the market," he said.

The Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) partners with the Apeiron Institute on these energy auditing classes, but also offers 52 in-house and online green courses of its own, ranging from green building techniques to indoor air quality to photovoltaic design and installation.

Keith Stokes, executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, highlighted CCRI’s role in creating a trained green workforce. “At a community college, the student body represents working people, and particularly working people in transition," he said. "And Rhode Island has a significant portion of our workforce that needs access to additional training and education so they can pursue a pathway into a quality job.”

The New England Institute of Technology (NEIT) has taken a different tack. Rather than create a new green technology degree, said Steve Kitchin, vice president for corporate education and training, “we’ve elected to add green features to the curriculum in all of our programs.”

Rounding things off, the Rhode Island Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, chaired by Kitchin, offers continuing education courses to building professionals.

The council attempts this primarily through its LEED credentialing program. LEED is an internationally recognized green building certification system that considers all environmental aspects of a building or home in context. But the council's certification of buildings has come under fire recently, and it has been named a defendant in a class action lawsuit claiming that LEED standards are fraudulent and lead builders away from proven energy efficiency techniques. 

Thanks to programs like these, a green workforce is taking shape around the state. Certifications in hand, its members are ready to report for work.

But a trained and motivated workforce by itself may not be enough to galvanize a green economy in Rhode Island.

“You can’t train for the sake of training,” said Jeff Polucha, who chairs the Green Technology Consortium, a business partnership sponsored by the Governor’s Workforce Board. “And the economy is so bad that there’s not a lot of employment in any sector.”