In 1995, Michael D'Arcy returned home to Kingston, N.Y. after serving his country as a Marine. He wanted to help his fellow veterans find jobs, and in 2011 was hired on as a regional energy coach at Rural Ulster Preservation Corporation, or RUPCO. The local community-based organization had just won a two-year contract with NYSERDA to take part in the Green Jobs-Green New York program.
The program's hopes were to increase energy efficiency within homes through weatherization and retrofitting services, and at the same time employ thousands across the state by providing Building Performance Institute* green jobs training certification.
Because CBOs like RUPCO work to establish trust within their communities, NYSERDA set out to hire one CBO in each of 13 regions throughout the state to spread the word about the Green Jobs-Green New York initiative. The CBOs' tasks included encouraging participation in the energy efficiency programs, bringing awareness to the workforce training opportunities and assisting people in enrolling in all the efforts.
In 2010, NYSERDA set a budget of $10 million for Green New York outreach and marketing. As many as 18 CBOs have since been involved, and 12 still are on board.
Outreach coordinators like D'Arcy would educate homeowners on how they could make their homes cheaper via energy efficiency, while simultaneously providing more jobs.
"The plan was to increase awareness to the program, get consumers in, increase the work given to contractors," D'Arcy says.
But five years later, little progress has been made. Data released of the CBOs selected during the first-round and second-round requests for proposals between 2011 and 2016 show that of 413 people enrolled in training, 236 people completed the training, 98 were connected to employers and only 83 throughout the state of New York have been employed.
According to the 2015 GJGNY Annual Report, increased demand for skilled labor was anticipated based on consumer demand increasing—in other words, homeowners going green would boost the need for contractors to retrofit homes. The workforce development programs were designed around that anticipated demand.
Through posting demands for workers on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter, RUPCO hoped to find jobs for more people by increasing contractors' workforce to keep up with the needs.
"What did work was leveraging those partnerships with contractors and getting them busy, and some of them did increase their staff," D'Arcy says.
But he never was able to find out whether any veterans were hired.
"I didn't get any proof on that," he says, "so that's a sort of discouraging part."
And non-veterans didn't fare much better.
The most recent GJGNY annual report shows that despite the 2,387 home performance applications received by RUPCO and the more than half of those assessments completed, just 326 retrofits were completed. Though D'Arcy says that his CBO saw success in many areas, overall, few were hired.
"It hasn't been as successful as I'd like to see it or we'd like to see it," D'Arcy says. "So the success story that I tell about workforce development is really so minute."
D'Arcy says some of the positives he did see include forming partnerships both with the Department of Labor and with training centers where job seekers could become certified. He also says getting RUPCO's staff themselves BPI certified was huge progress.
"That gives us more credibility when we're out there talking from the point of view of a contractor," he says.
D'Arcy says giving public presentations on workforce development was also helpful, as was visiting underserved places in New York to make them aware of CBOs and establishing relationships with contractors in areas available for workforce development.
D'Arcy also faced one particular challenge: RUPCO covers nine counties—and he's only one man.
"There are so many people who don't know about any of these programs, and it's not like I can go and clone a hundred of me and go out and do it," he says. "So I think there has to be a little bit more of a broader brush approach to marketing it than relying on contractors to go and push the program."
One thing D'Arcy says helped the CBO with its task at hand was the involvement of the nearby State University of New York community colleges.
Christopher Marx directs the continuing professional education department at SUNY Ulster County and he's also a member of the RUPCO board. When RUPCO signed with NYSERDA, it teamed up with SUNY, which hosts a Building Performance Institute training certification center, in the outreach effort.
"We were building the capacity, they were building the market," Marx says. "So they were working with homeowners and businesses to get these energy audits and then to do the upgrades that would then employ the people that would come through the programs that we created."
"We worked with our regional community colleges in the SUNY system to apply for a number of grants, and got quite a bit of support from NYSERDA," Marx says.
But Marx says the results were different from what he expected.
"What we thought was going to happen, which was what everybody kind of thought would happen, was that this whole movement toward green building science techniques and clean energy systems was taking off on everyone's roof, with all kinds of facilities, would kind of take hold and create the need for this new green workforce," he says.
But instead of people looking to develop new careers in this area, Marx says the professionals who were already working in the field were the ones looking for certification. "So our courses were being filled with electricians and plumbers and contractors, carpenters, architects, engineers who are already doing the work."
Marx says he and his colleagues were optimistic that the experts in the field would create a green workforce, but the numbers did not meet their expectations.
"We still don't see a lot of new careers or new career opportunities necessarily for someone coming into these training programs," he says.
Customers and contractors wanted
Marx blames the GJGNY program's disappointing performance on economic factors.
"Six years ago, a little thing called the recession happened and we're still kinda clawing our way out of that, and that affected all the industry," he says.
Marx says economic growth stalled over the past five years and the statistics on new construction and renovation showed that investment in the area decreased significantly during that time. So did the number of jobs in those trades.
D'Arcy says NYSERDA needs more funds allocated to outreach. Although NYSERDA put out a public opportunity notice that helped fund on-the-job training for home performance contractors and new hires, it drew little interest.
"I'm not sure that there's incentive out there enough for contractors and for potential employees to get into the program," he says.
Another CBO in upstate New York that covers the largest geographic area of any CBO involved in GJGNY also had issues getting people involved in workforce development.
An energy coordinator—who asked not to be named because NYSERDA told him he could not speak to the press—says contractors in his area felt that the opportunity to take part in the workforce training program offered little reward for those already working in the field. Despite the 393 home performance applications his CBO received and the more than half that number of assessments that were completed, just 53 retrofits were completed.
"I think a lot of the small contractors just say, ‘You know I've got enough work now, why do I want totake this on, expanding to another area where it's going to take me forever to get a job complete?'" he says. "That was the initial challenge."
Aside from hours of driving from one job to the next, the contractors were also daunted with the amount of paperwork that comes with participating in the program.
"You have to put it into a TREAT [energy audit software] report, a lot of data entry into computer work," he says. "A lot of people didn't have the time or if they did have the time, they didn't have the skills, and it was hard for them to come to that capacity and resources."
Jen Monroe launched a one-woman business, Adirondack Efficiency, just to handle all the tedious paperwork that came with NYSERDA's green job audits.
"So they're able to do what they do best which is, you know, changing out heating systems and insulating houses and I get, they pay me to do the audit," says Monroe, who previously worked for a company that recruited contractors for the NYSERDA program.
"It is so insanely complicated and bureaucratic, it's crazy that it works at all," Monroe says. "It still boggles my mind three years into it how complicated it is, and it doesn't need to be that way."
Monroe says paperwork is just one issue in the North Country region. Fact is, there are few contractors to take on the work in that vast area of the state.
"We have huge need for efficiency services because it's the coldest part of the state and the lowest income and it's very rural, so I'm going out and promoting these programs, and it's like, ‘Oh but sorry, there's no contractors that can actually do the work,'" Monroe says. Monroe also heard that companies didn't want to invest in equipment without more confidence that their work was in demand.
The energy efficiency coordinator wishing to remain unnamed says he faced the same thing within his CBO. Successful firms, he says, combine green retrofits with other work.
The choice for workers
Workers, meanwhile, had to consider making investments, too. In the Adirondack region, getting BPI certified means spending $700 just to take the classes, and then $450 extra to take the test, and every three years the certification* must be renewed.
"I'm in my job for three years," he says, "why am I going to pay my money to get accredited, then I have to re-up again?"
Cornerstone is one successful contractor in the Adirondacks area, but in addition to offering construction and NYSERDA specialty programs, it also specializes in plumbing and offers HVAC service, installations and commercial work.
While upstate New York faces problems of low incomes and spread out counties, the city faces its own challenges with the Green Jobs Green New York program.
William Blair, director of adult education and workforce development at Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation, says of the GJGNY experience there that, "across the board we've been a very successful program." But when Blair came on staff this past April, NMIC's green certification programs were plagued by a 25 percent attrition rate. He cut it to 14 percent after noticing that people were dropping out about halfway through the course.
"My immediate thing was to look at it differently and say, ‘Let's cut this short, reduce it by six weeks, but double the time during the day,' so it became a six-hours a day program for six weeks," he says.
After shortening the length of the course more people graduated the classes. Once the retention rate went up, Blair says he was able to make the class sizes smaller because they didn't have to meet a higher number of retained students after factoring in ones who dropped out.
"When you have a smaller class, people can have more practical time, it's more engaging, they get more attention from the instructor and I think that helps," he says.
This series was produced by members of the fall 2015 urban investigative reporting course at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
* Correction: The original version of this article referred erroneously to the Business Performance Institute; the correct name is Building Performance Institute. And it is the BPI certification, not accreditation, that must be renewed every three years.