Training students for careers in weatherization and green building

July 2020

Employers throughout Minnesota have long voiced concern over the lack of young people training to become weatherization and building contractors.

Minnesota State College Southeast in Winona saw a potential solution to this problem by launching its 2-year construction technology A.A.S. degree program in 2018. The goal was to increase the pool of contractors available for commercial and residential weatherization projects and other construction jobs. Since the degree program’s formal launch, enrollment in the program has grown.

Degree program trains students in green building techniques

Jonathan Powell, a 20-year veteran of the construction industry, leads the college’s degree and diploma programs. He was one of three graduates to receive certification in weatherization through the Building Performance Institute (BPI). Given his background, the college asked Powell to help design and lead the new A.A.S. program.

Classes study air sealing, weatherization, smoke tests and various types of insulation, which improve the energy footprint of a home or building. Students attend courses from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday to Thursday, Powell said, and have opportunities to work in the field. 

Powell spent several months in the summer and fall of 2018 visiting schools to attract students to the program, landing 18, who enrolled in the spring semester of 2019. Fifteen returned for the second year of the degree program, and 24 new students signed up for the fall semester of 2019.

“Enrollment has been good the last couple years in the program,” Powell said. “We saw the highest number of students in over 15 years last year. Two-thirds of my students go into the A.A.S. degree, and all enroll in the weatherization class.”

We’re starting to see more interest. Students are starting to take notice of the opportunities in the field.

Jonathan Powell, Minnesota State College Southeast

Adjusting to the current times

Although applicant interest has remained steady, Powell is prepared for impacts on enrollment in the upcoming year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the program plans to adapt and adjust as it can to meet student needs and ensure safety.

“As a program, I will be making as many options available as possible,” he explained. “This includes lectures being both in person and hybrid. Students can be flexible with what they choose and also can switch back and forth between the two.  It will be recorded for all to revisit as well. In labs we will be wearing masks, wiping tools and ladders and keeping distance whenever possible.”

Installing sealed insulation for slab pour at Habitat building in Winona

Projects in the field and community

Classes in previous years have worked on a 40-foot-by-70-foot addition of loading docks and a receiving area to Habitat for Humanity’s Restore in Winona. Students poured the foundation and floors, hung drywall, handled mudding and set the roof. “We did everything, 100 percent complete from start to finish,” he said.

Another project came later but the students did not have as much opportunity as expected. The class laid down the floor and did some insulating and air sealing. “It was a little disappointing because we wanted to do a bit more on a residential project,” he said. “But that client may have more work for us later.”

The degree program will continue to partner with Habitat of Humanity’s local chapter in the future and potentially participate in building one or two homes, he said. The students may also assist in renovating Winona’s aging housing stock.

Weatherization and energy efficiency skills seen as niche in competitive industry

A CERTs Seed Grant the college received gave Powell the opportunity to teach air leakage control and other skills which are certified by BPI. Most of the rest of the curriculum is associated with BPI principles and best practices.

Although students expressed interest in the certification, its expense, typically around $500, was too much for them, Powell said. The skills are important to know, but it remains unclear whether certification matters in a local market where contractors are hard to come by, he conceded.

An attempt to attract contractors to earn certification through the college fell flat. Powell and school failed to find any contractors willing to go through the certification process. Even the offer of standalone training did not work.

The reason is simple. 

“In this economy everybody is so busy,” he said. “It’s a tough sell right now. The need is there but it’s hard to get people interested.”

Powell is honest with his students that much of the highest paying work in the industry is in commercial construction, not weatherization. As a niche, however, weatherization and other energy efficiency skills allow students to build their own businesses with just a handful of employees and have an endless stream of work.

The college reports every graduate will find a job. Students attending the class have all found summer work for contractors.

If I had 10 more students, I would have had summer jobs for all of them. People call me in March for summer help. There’s an incredible need for these employees.

Jonathan Powell, Minnesota State College Southeast
  • Technology: Weatherization, building air sealing, insulation, smoke tests
  • Southeast CERT Seed Grant: $3,500
  • Total Project Cost: $22,700
  • Other funds and in-kind contributions: scholarships, consulting, utility marketing materials, City of Winona staff time, building materials donation, classroom space
  • Project Team: Travie Thule and Jonathan Powell (Minnesota State College Southeast), Paul Schollmeier (Efficiency Detectives, LLC), Pam Newell (Xcel Energy), Kevin Brauer (Home Performance Strategies), John Howard (City of Winona), Elena Foshay (Partners in Energy)
  • People Involved and Reached: 474
  • Annual Energy Savings: 14,520 kWh and 1,940 therms

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