Local program prepares individuals for careers in energy efficiency
But since March 15, Allen has been sitting behind a laptop six hours a day inside UMass Lowell's Center for Family, Work, and Community at 600 Suffolk St., learning about such topics as heat conduction, blower door testing and thermal imaging.
The laid-off construction worker raising three kids is one of 20 students in a job-training program designed to prep students in the burgeoning field of weatherization of residential buildings or, as it's called in the industry, "Energy Efficiency Technician Training."
This is a lot more than caulking window panes or using a hairdryer to seal plastic over a drafty window.
"It's not rocket science but it is very precise," said Gary Kaplan, executive director of JFY NetWorks, a Boston-based nonprofit job training firm that won a $200,000 state "Pathways Out of Poverty" grant to organize the course. "If this isn't done right, the building owner will end up with more heat loss or, worse yet, mold."
The program is designed for low-income, unemployed and underemployed residents of Lowell and the Merrimack Valley. Program graduates will gain a portfolio of skills and certifications that qualifies them for a career in the energy efficiency industry. Participants receive up to 300 hours of instruction.
Conducting the training is a firm known as Conservation Services Group and the New England Consortium,
which specializes in worker health and safety training.
Besides the Lowell location, which is inside the Wannalancit Mills complex, students get practical, hands-on experience at the "Weatherization Boot Camp" inside a Fitchburg building complex. That facility is operated by CSG in conjunction with the National Grid and NStar utilities, for whom weatherization and energy efficiency are top priorities.
When the current course concludes in mid-May, another 20-student class will begin.
For Allen, who has been unable to find work, training in a new field has given him hope.
"I really want to get back out there," said Allen. "This is a growing field, so I'm very optimistic."
It's not easy, he said. "You need to think of the house as a whole," he advised. "And it's not about making sure the house is air-tight. It needs to breathe. There's also a lot of math involved."
Just to make ends meet, another student, Joe Malonson, 25, of Lowell, works third shift sorting packages at UPS in Chelmsford.
Once his training is complete, Malonson hopes he can find a related job and "get some sleep."
Many of the students are from Lowell, but others reside in Chelmsford, Dracut, Haverhill, Lawrence, Pepperell, Tewksbury and Tyngsboro. All are men. They range in age from 20 to over 50.
Whether the economy is strong or weak, homeowners will search for ways to reduce energy consumption, Kaplan said. Such jobs, he added, can't be "outsourced." The average entry-level job pays about $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year with good benefits.
Kaplan, who lives in Canton, could have offered the course in another Massachusetts city, but he chose Lowell because he knew he'd get the help he needed. Key partners are the city's Workforce Investment Board, and its executive director, Barbara O'Neill, and UMass Lowell, which is charging a "nominal rent" for its Wannalancit space.
"We think it is appropriate that the first world-class industrial city in Massachusetts should assume a leading position in the new industrial revolution," Kaplan said, referring to the state's Green Energy Initiative. "In Lowell, people really seem to work together, unlike in other places."
Kaplan estimates that 80 percent of the current class will meet the necessary requirements to graduate. As part of the course, students also receive a refresher on interview skills and resume writing.