Workforce Development: Clean Energy Progress in Southwest PA

Senator Lindsey Williams addresses the crowd during her keynote address.

May 30, 2024 — by Jeaneen Zappa, Executive Director

Despite its geographically focused name, at the May 16 event “Workforce Development: Clean Energy Progress in Southwest PA”  the challenges speakers described echoed what we’ve been hearing across the state over the past 3 yearsThe event was co-hosted by the Energy Efficiency Alliance and Sustainable Pittsburgh

Starting with a keynote address from PA Senator Lindsey Williams (Senate District 38), Minority Chair of the legislature’s Education Committee, three key points arose throughout the day:

  1. We need more workers in clean energy jobs.
    We are receiving new federal funds for energy efficiency, clean energy resources, grid stabilization, and more while we face a growing wave of retirements among those who can perform this work.
  2. We need more investment in training programs and services.
    Programs are often over-subscribed and underfunded. Information about them is fragmented. Prospective workers need swift, effective, and supportive on-ramps, access and information to be ready to work.
  3. Employers need to be creative, persistent and open to new approaches – and should reach out to existing services intended to help them.
    All agreed that they are “Hiring the attitude and training the skill.”

Senator Williams underscored one particular area of opportunity – residential energy efficiency — noting the significant portion of older homes in the region and Commonwealth and their associated poor energy and health performance. Sen. Williams said the need to improve these dwellings set the stage for more people to enter residential energy efficiency jobs.

Her comments perfectly segued into a quick showcase of the event location – the future site of a Pittsburgh training center for the Clean Energy Center tied to Penn College of Technology, in partnership with Pittsburgh Gateways. Alison Diehl, Executive Director, Clean Energy Center, and Karen Benner, Director of Building Performance Programs, Pittsburgh Gateways Corporation, shared their enthusiasm for the weatherization and HVAC training facility that will be operational before year-end. 

Here’s some of the other interesting things heard that day:

Nick Karlo, General Manager, Mitchell Plumbing said, “Artificial intelligence will replace a lot of things but one thing I know it won’t replace is hands-on jobs.” But hiring is tough. He noted that “our biggest challenge is hiring skilled tradesmen with experience. It’s no longer a labor pool. We’ll just call it a labor puddle.”

Our “Creative Solutions to Workforce Challenges” panel featured Matt Mahoney w/ Sustainable Pittsburgh, John Parrish w/ Mincin Insulation Service, Inc, Ashley Clawson w/ DMI Companies, Inc., Kendall Pelling w/ Rising Tide Partners and Nick Karlo w/ Mitchell Plumbing.

John Parrish, Owner, Mincin Insulation, agreed, saying “I get a lot of applicants who have no interest in the actual work that we do. I spend more time trying to sell that to people before they even come in to apply. I’m not just looking for people who want a paycheck; I’m looking for people who want a career.”

These contractors are acting on their words. Karlo said Mitchell has added a “burnout” schedule so that everyone gets more paid time off on a rotating basis across the employee base. They’ve shifted to flexible schedules and even explored adding a childcare facility next door. Retaining workers matters as much as hiring, Mitchell said, noting “the last 10 people who I interviewed said that they looked at our Google reviews.”

Parrish said that a lack of a driver’s license is a huge barrier. “They have to be able to drive our trucks to job sites.” So Parrish said he asks job applicants: “Do you have a license? Is it suspended? Have you ever had one?” If the applicant is legally able to and commits to get a license within a stipulated period of time, Parrish is willing to hire. “I’ve met applicants at an Eat ‘n Park restaurant, at a Dunkin’ Donuts – whatever it takes.” He noted that he has a slew of people celebrating their 15-year anniversary with the company – a fact he reads as a signal that they’re doing some things right as an employer.

Ashley Clawson, Procurement Manager, DMI, echoed the driver’ license issue. She said that the ability to get workers to their manufacturing facility can present a barrier. “There is no public access or transportation to our facility” – a common issue outside of urban centers. DMI hires right out of high school and accepts 40 candidates each year. “We have an apprenticeship program with the Local 4 of the Sheet Metal Workers.” Clawson said the company holds a “Manufacturing Day” for high school students annually to attract applicants. Still, despite training and support services, Clawson said some new hires fail because “they elect not to come to work any longer.” Union rules mandate removal after 8 call-offs.

Kendall Pelling, Executive Director, Rising Tide Partners, said they have broadened their recruiting framework with great success. “We need great people but it’s hard to find them. We have been most excited about our partnership with the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, who do some work with returning citizens.”

Not all employers share that enthusiasm. Maggie Beldecos, Chief Operating Officer, Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, said their graduates have experienced issues with getting hired.  “I’ve been disappointed by employers. They talk about being open to diverse employees, but I have not seen that. Racism and sexism are alive in the construction industry in Pittsburgh.”

But TIP persists and continues to rack up success stories. They helped 77 people get a driver’s license in the last two years and are entering into a project with a local car dealership to provide workforce vehicles – one of their biggest challenges. Beldecos noted that making new hires feel welcome is just as important as transportation and childcare, particularly in justice-impacted communities.

Our second panel, “Solving the Challenge of Wrap-Around Services,” featured John Kolesnik w/ The Energy Efficiency Alliance, Alison Diehl w/ Clean Energy Center at Penn College, Darby Copeland w/ Parkway West CTC, Bonny Yeager w/ Partner4Work Pittsburgh, and Maggie Beldecos w/ Trade Institute of Pittsburgh.

Lance Harrell, Director of Workforce Development and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Master Builders Association, agreed, saying: “I don’t think there is a workforce challenge. We have a diversity team but most times it’s single-digit participation. We have to get comfortable talking about being uncomfortable.”

Bonny Yeager, Manager of Industry Solutions, Partner4Work – the local workforce investment board – pointed out that there are 2.2 job openings in the county for every unemployed worker. “Let’s shoot for getting people into these roles and retained and being part of a high-performing team so that these businesses can thrive.” Yeager urged the employers to reach out to her organization to solve challenges “That’s why we are here.”

Darby Copeland, Executive Director, Parkway West CTC, said there was a time when nearly all parents pushed their kids to go to college and discouraged working with their hands. But now the career training centers—once known as “VoTech schools”—are seeing strong rekindled interest in their programs and services. Most of the programs have a waiting list.

Alison Diehl, Executive Director, Clean Energy Center, in addition to her remarks showcasing the future Pittsburgh training site, also served as a panelist and highlighted the need for partnerships with organizations who can provide much-needed wrap-around services, in addition to hands-on and fieldwork training. 

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay up to date on breaking EE news

Share this post with your friends