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Job loss in mid-40s leads to fulfilling career change for Thom Burden

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with an OkoFen auto-feed pellet boiler at the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Thomas Burden, a renewable energy project manager for the Sandri Companies, stands with the solar panel array outside the company office in Greenfield. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

In 2008, Thom Burden lost his job as operations director at the Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Fall.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to be unemployed, to have no idea what’s going to happen to you next — at least it was for me,” says Burden, 49, of Northfield, who was then in his mid-40s and had not been in job market for years.

So Burden started looking for work the same way he had in his late teens. “Back then, you looked in the newspaper, you asked for an interview, and you went over with your resume in hand,” he said.

Burden quickly realized that approach would not get him anywhere. “There were no jobs,” he said, “and trying to find one the traditional way didn’t work,” he said. “I had never been faced with that — it’s scary because there’s so much you don’t know.”

Getting help

Burden went to the Greenfield office of the Franklin Hampshire Career Center, a one-stop shop that offers employment and training services to job- seekers in this region. The center also has an office in Northampton.

“I wasn’t sure at the time what to do,” Burden recalls, “but I figured I had to take every opportunity I could to change my life,” he said.

Burden met with a counselor to take stock of his situation. Though he had started college decades earlier, he’d never gotten a bachelor’s degree. In Rochester, N.Y., where he’d lived at the time, Burden had his own business designing, building and installing home-theater systems and outfitting new commercial buildings with phone, audio-visual and Internet technology systems.

After he and his wife moved to Massachusetts, Burden had landed the job at Hallmark, where he handled building operations, including maintenance, soundproofing and audio-visual systems.

When the career center counselor asked if he was open to job retraining, Burden said yes. At that point, he said, she encouraged him not just to look at job openings, but to think about his interests and skills.

He’d gone in, Burden said, with an “I’ll take anything” mind-set. “But she was asking me, what makes sense for you?”

Though they discussed a number of possibilities, Burden said he was intrigued right away when the counselor described the Renewable Energy/Energy Efficiency programs at Greenfield Community College. Offered as both certificate and degree programs, RE/EE training gives students a grounding in the scientific, economic and political context of renewable energy, and hands-on skills.

“I looked at others, like medical transcription,” Burden said, “but for me, renewables was sort of it.”

Back to school

Burden says the field appealed to his already existing personal interest in recycling and energy issues, and he also figured that his previous experience and knowledge about how buildings work would make for a natural fit. “It did kind of meld together,” he said. “I do think that allowed me to feel comfortable with it.”

Burden was accepted into GCC’s 28-credit, RE/EE certificate program. (The degree program is 60 -credits.) His education expenses were paid through government funds for workforce development, and Burden said unemployment payments also helped with living expenses.

Between 2007 and 2012, 60 students completed either the certificate or degree program, according to Teresa Jones, who oversees both at the school. Graduates have taken their skills to renewable energy businesses, while others have started their own enterprises, or have used their new knowledge and skills to work in local government, said Christine Copeland, the RE/EE program assistant. Still others have opted to pursue advanced work at a college or university. With the help of a grant, the college wants to gather more specific data this year on how students have fared, Copeland said.

In addition to the 60 graduates, Jones said, there are students have taken some of the classes and have moved directly into the workforce, while others have taken selected RE/EE classes to supplement their work in other fields.

In fall 2010, Burden started the first of four semesters at GCC. Classroom time, he said, was supplemented by site visits, for example, to wind farms, and to the power plant at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It was exciting,” he said of his return to school. “It’s a different view of things when you’re older — and I was with others who were also in their 30s or 40s. The more people I met, the more comfortable I felt.”

His teachers, he said, were excellent, both in presenting their subjects and in offering encouragement.

Finding a job

Through a GCC classmate who worked there, Burden said he heard about the Sandri Companies, a Greenfield outfit founded in 1930 as an oil company. Sandri, Burden learned, was venturing into alternative energy, including solar heating systems and low-emission wood pellets. Sandri now offers residential and commercial customers services such as solar hot water, solar electric systems, and wood pellet central heating systems.

“I worked at it,” he said, learning as much as he could about the company — and then applying for an internship there, which he got. During his three-month internship, Burden was assigned to research how the company could build the renewable side of its business — what systems it should offer, for example, and what kind of partnerships to build with other companies.

The internship led to the offer of a full-time job in December 2011. Burden is now a project manager, and also works in sales. “I wouldn’t give this up for anything,” he said the other day during an interview at Sandri. “I feel like I’ve moved to a field that is the future and we’ve just scratched the surface. The sun goes up and the sun goes down, and as long as that continues to happen, I’m a happy camper.”

But if Burden’s story sounds too easy, he will remind you that it wasn’t. The loss of his job in 2008, he said, was part of other losses as well, including his marriage and his home.

Asked if he had any advice to pass on, Burden offered a few pointers: Keep your head up. Don’t sit still and wait for a job to come knocking. Check out what a community college like GCC can offer.

And take advantage of the Franklin Hampshire Career Center: “They have information, money and help,” he said. “The people there care and that’s their job, to help you.”

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