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Dec 8, 2023

The Future of Energy Efficient Building Construction

Where are we with training a new workforce?

By: Michelle Thorsell

Construction worker inside framed house

Building and energy codes are improving with each edition published so that occupants of new buildings have an increasingly healthier, safer environment, and a reduction in energy consumption and carbon impact. Highlighted in conversations with building officials and builders across the Midwest is the fact that skilled workers are retiring. Young people looking for a career path, or those looking for a career change, are not aware of the career possibilities in the construction industry that support healthier buildings. How many high schoolers say they want a career as a building inspector or as a HERS rater? Are there enough educational opportunities for those interested in these career paths? Is there quality training in the mechanical, electrical and other construction trades to prepare the next generation for emerging technologies?

In less populated communities, creative partnerships are needed for early training programs. One such example – a renovation project in Fort Dodge, Iowa – The Energy Efficiency Home-Renovation Start to Finish. The county housing development corporation, Iowa Central Community College and local high school, with the support of MEEA and other energy efficiency organizations, created the opportunity for a group of young adults to learn the craft of creating an energy-efficient home. Iowa Central Community College Instructor Dan Oswald said, “These types of programs are extremely valuable to kids wanting to go into some type of trade. It provides them the opportunity to experience an actual hands-on building process they couldn’t obtain from a “normal” high school setting. This is so valuable because they would be hard-pressed to get this type of experience elsewhere. Even though we are doing an actual project, it’s still a classroom-type atmosphere where they are encouraged to try things and do things they couldn’t on a normal jobsite.” Unfortunately, after decades of this program’s success, funding at the high school will not be available for the 2023-2024 school year. Similar programs have also shuttered in Edwardsville, Illinois.

There is good news. The Midwest is still home to a few programs that continue this important work, which are highlighted below.

Chicago, Illinois – Chicago Builds is an Illinois Works Pre-Apprenticeship Program site and offers the Master Builder program in conjunction with City Colleges of Chicago. The program provides a two-year off-campus construction training for Chicago Public Schools Juniors and Seniors. In addition to receiving technical training in carpentry, electricity, heating and cooling systems, welding, and general construction, students also have opportunities to earn industry-recognized certifications.

Fort Wayne, Indiana – The Construction Trades program at Garrett High School is a partnership with Ivy Tech Community College and has existed for around 40 years. Local businesses are involved by interviewing the students, offering mentorships, and providing gainful employment. Further, the program is completely funded through community businesses, philanthropic organizations, and a commitment from the school corporation. Funds provide for staff, equipment, renovations, supplies, tool upgrades, professional development, and curriculum. The program recently expanded to include career development exploration classes for the 5th through 12th grades.

Omaha, Nebraska – Benson High School partnership with Habitat for Humanity is an off-site construction program at Benson High School that has worked with Habitat for Humanity to construct six affordable homes in Omaha so far. Habitat for Humanity’s sustainable building program promotes the conservation and efficiency of resources through whole systems approach, providing a healthier environment while saving on utility costs.

Green Bay, Wisconsin – Bridges Construction & Renovation is a hands-on educational program within the Green Bay Area Public School District that began in 2015. This public school program partners with builder organizations and a homeownership assistance program. Students help build a house and are able to observe experts installing insulation, mechanical, and electrical systems. In addition, the local building department officials teach the students about the work that they perform and allow them to observe and ask questions during an inspection. Program leaders encourage outside building experts to teach a class session that informs students about what their job entails. In the classroom, the students have frequent opportunities to discuss the energy code and ways to increase building efficiency beyond code.

Columbus, Ohio – The Ohio Construction Academy partners with an educational organization to offer tuition-free workforce development classes to 9-12th grades. As a charter school in the city, students can explore construction-related careers both in the field and in the classroom.

Constructing energy efficient buildings provides a healthier and safer environment while lowering carbon impact. The next generation needs to be prepared for the future through education and training on what an energy-efficient, healthy building is. Sustaining these crucial training programs and creating opportunities through partnerships will be paramount to the success of workforce development.

This article was originally published in the MEEA Blog and is republished with permission.

Michelle Thorsell
MEEA Buildings Project Manager

Michelle Thorsell is a Buildings Project Manager at MEEA. She leads selected initiatives and supports the work of the Buildings Team with a focus on energy efficiency of new and existing buildings.

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