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Green job training graduates still waiting for work

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Webster-Windsor Insulation
Webster-Windsor Insulation in Coon Rapids is a family business with two crews working on low-income weatherization projects in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Students and educators at Summit Academy in north Minneapolis are frustrated. 

Summit's vocational training seeks to pair disadvantaged people with jobs. For more than a year the academy has been gearing up for what it thought would be a flood of weatherization work. But the new jobs have not materialized. 

"That's what these stimulus dollars were supposed to do is create opportunities for folks," said Leroy West, COO at Summit Academy OIC. "And right now, we're not seeing it."

Summit Academy is nonprofit educational and vocational training center. A section of the school has been set up to teach weatherization skills. 

A weatherization lab and entire energy efficient house at the school are used to teach a variety of weatherization techniques.

West said more than 130 people have been through Summit's new weatherization program. But just a couple dozen have landed jobs. 

Abe Hassan, who runs a stimulus-funded weatherization training program targeting minorities in East St. Paul tells a similar story. 

Leroy West
Summit Academy Chief Operating Officer Leroy West. Summit's vocational training seeks to pair disadvantaged people with jobs. For more than a year the academy has been gearing up for what it thought would be a flood of weatherization work. But the new jobs have not materialized.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Hassan said 19 people graduated from his training program recently at Merrick Community Services but none of his students have found jobs using those skills. 

"I don't understand what the deal is as far as placing our individuals," Hassan said.

The weatherization program is new to Hassan, but he's been training minorities for general construction jobs with federal money for nearly 15 years. 

Hassan said nearly all of his general construction course graduates end up with jobs. 

Attic insulation mock-up
An attic insulation mock-up in a Summit weatherization lab.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

When he launched his six-month weatherization class earlier this year, Hassan said he had no idea he would have such a difficult time placing his students. 

"Normally on my normal program, a majority of my students are actually hired before they even graduate, so I never thought it's going to take this long." Hassan said. "And I'm just waiting to hear from those companies. I call. They promise. We'll come. They don't show up. I call again. I e-mail. So I'm waiting." 

Minnesota has received $130 million in stimulus-funded weatherization money and the federal government wants spent in less than two years. 

The state Legislature had to approve spending the money, and lawmakers made it clear they wanted disadvantaged workers to get some of the jobs.

The problem with bringing new workers into the field is that there are already plenty of people with experience looking for work.

Jennifer Windsor, of Webster-Windsor Insulation in Coon Rapids, said she likes the idea of hiring people from the training programs but she's found students fresh from the classroom aren't ready for the job. 

Abe Hassan
Abe Hassan runs a stimulus-funded weatherization training program targeting minorities in East St. Paul tells a similar story.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Webster-Windsor is a family business with two crews working on low-income weatherization projects in Minneapolis. 

"The intern that we did have was perfect," Windsor said. "I mean he was just not fully developed in the skill sets that we needed at the pace that we needed at that time."

Webster said government-funded work has allowed her to keep two employees who would have lost their jobs because of the slow construction economy. 

Windsor said she plans to add more weatherization employees soon, but she said her hiring decisions have to make business sense. 

"I am a resident of the city of Minneapolis and have been for 10 years," she said. "And this money was given to the city of Minneapolis and if I can do what I can in order to utilize that community to better my business and to educate these people that have this desire to go through this training, then I am going to certainly do that."  

Democrat Ellen Anderson of St. Paul was the chief state Senate author of the weatherization legislation. Anderson acknowledges she's disappointed that so many trainees can't find jobs.

"They have their hopes up, and they want to get jobs. They're ready to go," Anderson said. "So I just hope we can do everything we can to make sure those jobs are coming, and we will when the Legislature reconvenes we'll be taking a very close look at this to make sure that we're doing everything we can."

Anderson has been pressuring state agencies for information about low income and minority weatherization worker hiring. She said she expects more newly trained workers will find jobs.as the low-income weatherization program expands.

But people who run the programs say there might not be as many new jobs as some hope.

"There may be higher expectations than there are openings," said Cynthia Webster, who oversees energy conservation programs at the Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, Minnesota's largest low-income weatherization provider. 

Webster said last week she had 79 applications for a single weatherization job. 

She said so far she's hired 18 new employees to help cover stimulus-funded weatherization work. Two of them have been people of color. 

"What has been hard is that we come from this from an energy conservation standpoint and this has been coming down as a jobs program," she said.

But State Sen. Anderson said energy conservation and job creation do go hand in hand. 

And Anderson said even if stimulus-funded weatherization jobs don't materialize for disadvantaged workers, the new trainees will be a good position going forward. She said they just need to be patient. 

"When the Congress passes a climate bill it's going to change our whole economy and all of the smart money is going to be on clean energy, on saving energy, on doing things more efficiently and the jobs will multiply," Anderson said.

But Hassan said his graduates need jobs now and that lawmakers should consider attaching minority hiring targets to weatherization contracts, just as they do with other government work. 

"I would say to the Legislature perhaps they could go back and do an addendum or re-look at the way these contracts are going out," Hassan said. "Perhaps add goals to it, similar to the FHWA -- the Federal Highway Administration."

Although placing trainees in jobs is proving difficult, the weatherization classes continue in the hope that there will soon be enough weatherization work not only for experienced carpenters, but also for new trainees hoping to build careers.