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April 24, 2017

Energy industry turns to CT colleges for worker pipeline

PHOTO | Steve Laschever Tunxis' new energy management program has drawn a mix of traditional college-age students and energy pros who want to further their skills. Shown (from left) are instructor Dave Bebrin, a senior engineer at Eversource, and students Brad Charron, Peter Kenefick and Kyle Kalisz.
PHOTO | Steve Laschever Ed Baker, an adjunct professor in Tunxis' energy management program, chats with students Kyle Kalisz (left) and Rulando Antoine (right).

Colleges often talk to local companies to gauge their future workforce needs, searching for opportunities to build new programs to help fill the gaps and attract students amid a competitive higher-ed market.

The latest focus has been on the state's energy industry, as evidenced by new degree programs at Farmington's Tunxis Community College and Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

The fledgling programs, which each have their own niche and were designed based on discussions with utilities, energy companies, business associations and others, were created because of a perceived growing demand for energy efficiency and concerns that companies won't be able to find enough qualified replacements for an aging workforce. Besides traditional college-age students, both schools' programs are also targeting continuing education for those already working in the industry.

“We can always use good people who are well trained in this area,” said Dave Bebrin, a senior engineer at Eversource who teaches part-time in the Tunxis program. “I don't think there's a lot of training around the energy-efficiency area.”

Tunxis' two-year energy management associate's degree program focuses on the skills needed to work in the commercial and industrial efficiency sector, in positions such as energy auditors, who assess energy consumption and prescribe ways to reduce it, and facilities managers.

They're careers that pay somewhere between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, according to the program's marketing materials.

Meanwhile, SCSU's program is a business administration bachelor's degree with a specialization in utility management, meant to prepare students for utility company positions in risk management and accounting, among others.

Looking for traction

Tunxis launched its energy management program, spearheaded by director Eric Gribin, in the fall 2016 semester.

Gribin invited a reporter to meet with students and teachers earlier this month at the campus. There were traditional college-aged students like Kyle Kalisz, 20, of Newington, who started at Tunxis as a business administration major but decided it didn't suit his personality.

“I wanted to do something more engaging,” Kalisz said.

He hopes to become certified as a home energy auditor to work between semesters, and is toying with the idea of pursuing a higher degree afterwards.

Nearby was Torrington resident and fellow student Brad Charron, 57, a project manager at Southbury's USA LED Energy Solutions, where he oversees commercial lighting projects. Charron said he hopes to use his new knowledge to achieve his “certified energy manager” (CEM) credential, which is a key hiring benchmark for a number of big companies, according to the Association of Energy Engineers, a certifying body for CEM.

Charron said he's had to learn much of what he knows on the job, and is happy there's a program that can give younger students a head start.

“It's great to be in class with the younger guys,” Charron said. “They're learning things that took us a lot of years and a lot of trial and error.”

Peter Kenefick, 47, a South Windsor resident who owns Residential Remedies, which offers energy consulting for investment property owners and other services, is also preparing to take the CEM test. His company has 10 employees and their main contract is performing quality-control inspections for Avangrid's Home Energy Solutions program. He hopes what he learns at Tunxis will help him expand more into the commercial and industrial efficiency space.

“Anything additional I can pick up is great,” Kenefick said.

Getting the energy management program up and running was no easy feat, Gribin said.

While Tunxis is providing classroom space and other in-kind support, Gribin had to convince two state entities to commit funding for teacher salaries and other expenses. He was successful, securing a three-year combined commitment of approximately $600,000 from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which had never previously committed money from its own budget to a higher-education program, and the ratepayer-backed Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund, which has a long history of providing education grants to colleges and other programs.

Diane Duva, director of DEEP's energy demand office, said she hopes the Tunxis program, which has over a dozen students in its second semester, will catch on, and perhaps spread to other Connecticut schools.

“There's a demand in the industry for people who can do the installation of high-efficiency HVAC equipment … and not necessarily [people with] bachelor's degrees,” Duva said.

In a recent U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study, 40 percent of Connecticut energy firms (out of 30,000 companies surveyed nationwide) said they are having a “very difficult” time finding candidates for energy-efficiency positions while another 47 percent found it “somewhat difficult.”

Insufficient qualifications and lack of training or technical skills were key drivers in the workforce shortage, the study found.

“Currently, industry contractors are having difficulty filling efficiency jobs, which require varied skills and specific certifications,” said Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund board Chairwoman Taren O'Connor, who works for the Office of Consumer Counsel. “To keep these companies and these jobs in state, we must continue to build a pipeline of qualified efficiency industry workers.”

There are currently 34,000 energy-efficiency workers in Connecticut, according to the DOE study, but there are many reasons to believe there won't be enough to fill future needs, experts say.

For one, retail electricity is expected to remain expensive in Connecticut, making efficiency a profitable proposition for property owners, particularly those who own larger commercial and industrial facilities the Tunxis program targets.

State government efficiency initiatives are also spurring demand. Connecticut requires utilities Eversource and Avangrid to direct some ratepayer funds to energy-efficiency programs for businesses and homeowners. Incentives in those various programs have increased in recent years, with the so-called Energize Connecticut budget for electricity-related programs alone breaching the $200-million mark last year, according to state data. The quasi-public Connecticut Green Bank also creates plenty of work for efficiency professionals, particularly through its C-PACE program, which offers long-term financing for commercial-building efficiency upgrades. Connecticut is also trying to reduce energy use in its own vast portfolio of buildings, through a program called Lead by Example.

Finally, unless there's a construction boom on the horizon, aging buildings are likely to need energy retrofits and related services.

Kevin Wyman, a West Hartford-based energy consultant who has worked in facilities positions for United Technologies Corp., Siemens and Honeywell, said state policies are a major demand driver.

“I think most customers ask about incentives and rebates before they even talk about spending any of their own money,” said Wyman, who serves on a board of industry advisors for the Tunxis program.

Wyman said state goals to increase renewable energy resources will also create job opportunities for those with the kind of knowledge the Tunxis program is sharing.

“Even with federal government pulling back [on renewables], there is an economic driver to some of those opportunities,” he said.

Wyman said there's a sweet spot in the industry for associate's degree-level workers. He recalled his time working for Siemens, where he hired newly minted mechanical engineers for efficiency-related positions. Mechanical engineers are smart, but they might not have the specialized knowledge needed to understand building systems, and Wyman would have to spend months training them.

“Whereas if I picked up someone from [Tunxis] it would be a shorter amount of training,” he said. “I probably couldn't take that associate's graduate and say 'go design a new piece of equipment' … but to do building audits and understand how things operate … I think someone coming out of Tunxis could do it.”

Bebrin, the Eversource employee and Tunxis teacher, agrees there's a need for more mid-level efficiency experts.

“Here we probably have a number of positions for people with a background at that level,” Bebrin said, adding that those jobs can lead to promotions, which can sometimes depend on achieving certain industry certifications.

SCSU eyes graying utility workforce

SCSU began planning its utility management program after hearing from executives at various area utilities, including the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, that they were concerned about the number of employees who were becoming eligible to retire.

During the 2015 evaluation, the school learned that approximately one-third of the region's public utilities workforce would become eligible to retire within five years. It was even worse, approximately half, at the Regional Water Authority.

“The research shows there are jobs and good-paying jobs,” said Ellen Durnin, SCSU's provost and vice president for academic affairs.

She estimates the program, which is part of SCSU's existing business school, will start with as many as 25 students this fall. A number are expected to come from a related feeder program launched at nearby Gateway Community College last year.

“It's not a career that kids coming out of high school say 'I'll think I'll be a public utilities manager,' ” Durnin said. “It's not something that just rolls off their tongue.”

But in time, if the new programs at Tunxis and SCSU are successful, it might.

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