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Federal training grant grows region’s green jobs

With its $800,000 grant, the Franklin-Hampshire Educational Collaborative exceeded its original goal of 96 participants, enrolling 174 mostly unemployed and under-employed workers in energy auditing, weatherization, solar technician and other fields — and providing certification for many of them to get jobs in an energy sector that many of the employers at a meeting this week said has been growing despite the sluggish economy.

“There’s tremendous growth in the marketplace, most of it in companies coming in from out of state, but locally, we’ve done exceptionally well,” said Gregory Garrison, general manager and chief financial officer of Hatfield-based Northeast Solar Design.

Sean Jeffords of Beyond Green Construction in Easthampton noted that there is a need for the 25 or so key players around the table to meet regularly — maybe every four months or so — to keep abreast of needs in the industry and also to teach the public about why to spend money on energy improvements.

“We’ve all learned so much from each other to be able to continue to do this kind of work,” he said. “In my experience, homeowners especially need a lot more support, a lot more education, and how do we reach out and make sure what we’ve learned we’re offering to other people aren’t at table – people that they don’t even know that they need to know it?”

Garrison, one of the first graduates from Greenfield Community College’s renewable energy/energy efficiency program in 2010, said his company drawn upon the program for nine of its 12 employees, as well as four of its summer interns.

“We’ll continue to have this experience because it’s great to have employees who have probably 70 percent of their training completed before they hit the front door,” he said. “That’s a huge benefit for our company.”

The three-year Northern Tier Energy Sector program, which the Franklin-Hampshire employment board oversaw for Berkshire and northern Worcester counties as well, is technically over at the end of January, but it was successful enough that the agency has been awarded an additional $25,000 to train and certify 10 additional workers before next July 1, according to Michael Baines, project coordinator.

“It’s a great opportunity to get more people into your businesses,” said Baines, noting that the program has helped businesses as well as the workers. With a short timeline for getting people interested in signing up for the training and certification programs, the employment board is actively seeking candidates, he said.

If the younger students are “on fire” about learning, so are businesses as they see how the potential for the field to grow.

Sandri Companies, which has been moving increasingly into renewable energies such as solar water heaters, is seeing growing demand, particularly for geothermal systems, said the business’s Misty Wyman-Ferrer.

“The economy’s been challenging, but there are still people and businesses willing to invest in green energy,” she said. “With the economy the way it is, for our company to have been as successful as it’s been opening up a new business line, we’ve been pleasantly surprised, and we’re looking forward to growing more in the future.” Still, said Garrison, “I know that in three or four years, we’re going to be losing all the subsidies around the (solar electric) marketplace. The cost of PV has dropped around 50 percent since last year, so our (business) sustainability is built on having better communication with the client base about what we do as combined businesses.” Garrison added, “The industry right now is feeling good. But I’m looking four or five years down the road, saying what about then, when to make the same million dollars means not installing this but installing three times as much.” One key, he said, is in “networking,” not just with related energy and construction businesses, but also with employment training, community college and technical school leaders.

“If the overall green community was more integrated in the message and in the networking, and we worked with each other and built upon each other’s work to see those opportunities, I think that message would be out there a little bit stronger.”

Paul Newlin, who teaches renewable energy courses at Mount Wachusett Community College and worked for the Franklin County Energy Office in 1978, when there were town energy committees in all 26 county towns, said the fact that “we’ve come full circle, where towns have energy committee again” provides another opportunity for such an advisory committee to become involved in public education. “I think this group would be well-served to be a source of information for those communities. If they ask: what exactly are the state incentives for PV? What are the expenses? If we had enough clout as a group, maybe we could leverage some low-interest loans to make that kind of capital cost affordable.”

Lynn Benander of Co-Op Power, which has a crew as well as volunteers to do energy conservation, and weatherization work, said, “The level of cooperation and collaboration here is extraordinary. It’s a lot of the reason we have be been able to make the progress we’ve made: we talk to each other, we’re not hiding our industry information, we’re sharing data that’s essential.”

Theresa Rowland of Commonwealth Corp., which applied for and oversees the job training program for the Northern Tier and four others around the state, agreed.

“What you’ve done is great here,” she told the group. “We don’t see that in every part of the state. Many times it doesn’t get past the coordination wall.”

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