Building a sustainability-fluent workforce for Tennessee’s construction sector

Building a sustainability-fluent workforce for Tennessee’s construction sector

Spring 2019 | Written by Jeff Harder

When Allen Shropshire describes his upbringing, his first adjective is both telling and simple: impoverished. Avondale, a neighborhood on the east side of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a place defined by the trappings of inner-city life: high in gang- and drug-related crime and violence, low in access to healthy food and legitimate employment, freely doling out hopelessness. Shropshire and four generations of family crammed into the same house even as his biological father faded from his life, and despite graduating high school with honors and a bright outlook, Shropshire succumbed to the streets. “I was tied into the drug trade—that’s what I was dealing with: drugs and guns,” the 32-year-old Shropshire says.

But today, Shropshire is years into turning that narrative around. He has a full-time job—in community outreach, trying to reach Chattanoogans who face the same everyday challenges he understands firsthand—and he intends to start his own insulation and weatherization business to serve his community. Such a massive life change is the sum total of many smaller ones—and, in part, a reflection of Build It Green, a sustainable jobs training program that reaches Chattanooga’s underserved citizens. Shropshire was one of the program’s first graduates. “Build It Green has opened doors that at time seemed like they couldn’t be opened,” he says.

Chattanooga’s Build It Green works to generate pathways out of poverty for young adults with job readiness training, community organizing, and outreach training.

Build It Green is one of several programs offered through Green | Spaces, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit dedicated to advancing the sustainability of living, working, and construction in and around the city. For 12 weeks, Chattanoogans learn the basics of sustainable construction, discover techniques to improve communication and avoid career-sabotaging pitfalls, and connect with community organizations and local businesses. And for the building sector in southeastern Tennessee, Build It Green provides a pipeline of sustainability-fluent talent at a time when local demand for tradespeople outpaces supply. “I think our biggest successes are yet to come, and our graduates are going to make big impacts in our small city,” says Christian Shackelford, co-director of Build It Green.

Green | Spaces has made great strides in fostering green building in Chattanooga. Their aim was to help create 20 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) projects and to credential 100 LEED APs in Chattanooga in three years; ultimately, their efforts resulted in 43 LEED-certified projects and more than 150 LEED APs in that time span. In 2014, Green | Spaces began building a series of three market-rate net-zero residences called NextGen Homes. But that experience also brought to the surface a shortcoming of the market: Construction costs surged between the first and third NextGen homes, due in large part to labor shortage.

(left to right) Executive Director Michael Walton, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP; Chris Woodhull; Outreach Coordinator – Empower Chattanooga, Allen Shropshire; and Program Director – Empower Chattanooga Christian Shackelford

A national phenomenon had come to Chattanooga’s building sector. “We kept hearing [from contractors] about the need for entry-level jobs in the building industry, and how a huge labor shortage”—along with tariffs on lumber and other materials—“is driving up construction costs,” says Michael Walton, executive director of Green | Spaces. With lifelong tradespeople aging out of the market, the labor squeeze means contractors are rarer and charge steeper rates. While that’s narrowly good for their bottom line, that lack of capacity means contractors are either more likely to turn down a job—or, if they’ve overextended their employees, become more prone to making costly, hazardous mistakes.

Around the same time, in 2014 Green | Spaces launched Empower Chattanooga, a program aimed at delivering energy equity to the city’s low-income neighborhoods, primarily by offering workshops to teach residents cheap and free ways to lower their electric bills. In building relationships with those communities, Green | Spaces learned that citizens were frustrated with a lack of employment opportunities, particularly for residents with criminal records trying to turn their lives around. But while volunteering with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) Tennessee Community, Walton encountered Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development (SEEED), a Knoxville-based program delivering environmentally focused career training and creating sustainable employment opportunities for young adults primarily residing in the inner city. Green | Spaces partnered with SEEED co-founder Chris Woodhull—who also directs Build Me a World, a nonprofit organization intended to help inner-city Chatanoogans break from gang and criminal pasts—to develop a similar program in the Gig City.

In January 2018, with grant funding through the Southeast Sustainability Directors Network, Empower Chattanooga and Build Me a World introduced Build It Green’s curriculum to its first class of 10 trainees, an approximate limit that’s held steady for the two classes that have followed. There are no prerequisites for admission into Build It Green: The staff reaches out into Chattanooga’s underserved communities to find prospects—like Shropshire, who joined Build It Green after making Woodhull’s acquaintance through Build Me a World—and from a friendly group suited to hands-on learning. “This was a way for us to impact fewer people, but on a much deeper level,” says Shackelford, who is also program director for Empower Chattanooga.

Over a span of three months, Build It Green trainees get a paid introduction—$10 an hour, 12 hours per week—to learn basic sustainable construction skills. After a whole-house view of how building systems interact, the curriculum deep dives into practical lessons in insulation, air sealing, and HVAC—areas directly related to energy efficiency and sustainability, which are also particularly relevant to low-income residents for whom aging rental dwellings with sky-high utility costs are facts of life. In hearing from experts and exploring the NextGen homes, Shropshire and his peers became familiar with high-efficiency energy systems, solar technology, and other strategies. A centerpiece of Build It Green involves working on community projects: Past efforts have included air sealing a senior center and upgrading a duct system and insulating an attic at Chattanooga’s Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center. Classes frequently stress workplace safety, and trainees graduate with OSHA 10 and lead abatement certifications.

Trainees receive a parallel education in what Build It Green calls soft skills. “Most contractors, we found, didn’t necessarily need higher-trained employees,” Shackelford says. Rather, “They were having trouble finding employees who could show up to work on time every day and leave their personal lives at home.” Classes typically begin with conversations about issues affecting trainees’ personal lives, offering an entry point to deliver techniques for better workplace communication and managing everyday challenges so they don’t encumber them while on the clock.

Build It Green’s 12-week program trains young adults for entry-level jobs in the energy services field while engaging them in sustainability practices and programs, including best practices in energy efficiency and weatherization programs.

BIG participants gain job training, job placement assistance, paid job shadowing assistance, and six weeks of technical training and six weeks of community engagement.

Connecting to the Community

A crucial element of the program involves connecting trainees with local contractors.

Since the Great Recession, the building industry has lacked skilled professionals even as construction enjoys a prolonged boom. As plumbers, pipe fitters, electricians, and mechanical engineers age into retirement, there are positions waiting to be filled. And with building systems growing more sophisticated and interconnected, tradespeople who are fluent in leading-edge technology and sustainability have no shortage of available work.
“It’s a challenge,” says Dave Barber, vice president and national director of engineering services at JE Dunn Construction, one of the country’s largest general contractors, with offices from Tennessee to Oregon. The company works across a range of markets, from K–12 schools to high-rise residences and offices, healthcare facilities to federal buildings. “Some of the jobs we’ve been involved with might need 400 electricians. [Finding them] is a challenge for any marketplace you go into, not just Tennessee.”

Developing a workforce for the construction industry of tomorrow starts with reaching kids before high school, presenting construction careers—whether pipefitting and plumbing or mechanical engineering—as viable career paths, a task made easier in the era of STEM-focused education. “My dad was an engineer, but I didn’t even know what an engineer did until my sophomore geometry teacher brought it up,” says Barber, who regularly interviews (and hires) fresh-out-of-college graduates. “But if you have a math aptitude, that might make for a good career. We’re trying to make that exposure before high school ends—that wasn’t done a generation ago.” Barber sends craftsmen and craftswomen into the schools to teach students about the industry. “We hone this interest and bring more individuals into the field of construction.”

Further into their careers, Barber recommends professionals join organizations like USGBC and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). “These professional organizations help bridge academia and the professional side,” he says. Supplemental training is offered through the employer—for instance, Barber’s team at JE Dunn undergoes education in air conditioning courses. Beyond staying up to date on technical knowledge, developing communication skills can become a difference maker on the job site. And ultimately, an appetite for improvement is essential. “We need people who want to maintain a challenging environment where they learn and grow,” Barber says. “We’re looking for people who aren’t interested in mastering their job in a year, or even 10, we’re looking for people who want to continue learning throughout their career.”

Nathan Shirai, owner of Insulation Unlimited in Chattanooga, has supported Build It Green by loaning equipment, inviting students to shadow him on the job site, and speaking to each class of trainees.

As a construction subcontractor located in the inner city, Shirai can speak firsthand to the challenges of both a lack of labor in the trades and lack of opportunity among inner-city communities. “As construction practices change, the science behind how a good building performs is becoming increasingly critical to efficient and healthy construction, and Build It Green is providing the total package to its trainees: the science, the hands-on skills to get the job done, and the soft skills needed to succeed on the job site of the future.”

Though the program is still in its infancy, there are many reasons for optimism. Ninety percent of trainees who have entered Build It Green have graduated, Shackelford says, and roughly three quarters of Build It Green’s graduates have found jobs—many within the construction industry, from remodel contractors to painters to solar installers. Others have gone on to positions in the city’s parks and recreation department or managing food service businesses. “It was really cool to see the skills from this program translate into other careers that weren’t even [part of] our original intention,” Shackelford says.

As for Shropshire, he’s filled with a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. He ventures into his community to explain the energy-saving virtues of LEDs (“A lightbulb is not just a lightbulb,” he says) and sealing up air leaks to drive down utility costs. Shropshire, who in early 2019 was hired as outreach coordinator for Empower Chattanooga, says the technical skills and connections he’s developed through Build It Green enable him to pull strings and provide those services to needy citizens at low or no cost. And along with starting a weatherization service and moving forward with his Green | Spaces role, Shropshire intends to start his own nonprofit aimed at helping people with criminal pasts find employment and purpose.

“For so long in my life, I’d been putting the wrong things into my community,” he says. “Outside of job skills, Build It Green teaches you about building and maintaining your community. It’s my obligation to go out, learn what I can, develop my skills, then come back and show others they can do the same thing I’m doing.”

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