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Warming up to green energy

WARM deconstruction site at Detroit Focus Hope
WARM deconstruction site at Detroit Focus Hope
It may seem odd that Detroit, a region with a depressed real estate market, would invest in training people with construction related skills. But it’s the amount of foreclosures, the stockpile of abandoned buildings and the low employment rate that makes Detroit ideal for these programs.

WARM Training Center has been a local leader in the green energy training initiative for over 20 years. Much of their success is due to their firm belief in partnerships. Since 2009, Henry Ford Community College, Southwest Solutions and Detroit Green Works Solutions have teamed up to offer a 10 week training course to teach weatherization and construction skills such as MIOSHA training, insulation and window installation, and proper air sealing, among other things. 

Weatherization refers to the process of making an existing building  (typically an older structure) more energy efficient. Because much of Detroit’s building stock was built more than a century ago and has not been properly maintained there is widespread need for more weatherization efforts. Energy audits performed on these buildings are likely to reveal drafty and poorly insulated structures. 

The Warm training program prepares individuals for positions in energy auditing. After completing the program, they are able to apply weatherization techniques, such as adding insulation, air sealing, upgrading outdated heating or cooling systems, or replacing inefficient lighting to those buildings.

Deconstructionthe proper way to dismantle a building completely to recycle or reuse its components, has become a vital part of the course as well. Owners (private, city or bank) of unwanted or abandoned buildings can either hire crews to bulldoze and dump the buildings into a landfill or they can hire crews to deconstruct them. These structures provide full inventories of weathered bricks, oak boards, intricate moldings, tiles, doors, and hardware that can be reused. Even things like asphalt shingles can be melted down and reused for roads or unusable wood can be recycled into wood chips for landscaping. 

Reclaim Detroit, a program operated by WARM and Detroit GreenWorks Solutions, offers deconstruction services at the same cost as demolition. They have incorporated reclaimed materials from Detroit buildings in two recent business remodels; Great Lakes Coffee Co and Stella Café. 

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, is another organization committed to helping unemployed or underemployed residents find work in green industries. While they do dedicate some training hours to weatherization and deconstruction, their main focus is environmental remediation. Before construction can be done on many older or deteriorated buildings, hazards such as mold, asbestos and lead need to be removed. "You need to clean up before you green up," DWEJ’s Job Developer Kinnus Paul simply states. 

Paul graduated from the very first training program offered by DWEJ in 2008 and has worked there ever since. After the 12-week training, participants receive their OSHA 10 workplace cards, asbestos and lead worker certifications, and HAZWOPER certifications. Paul’s role is to work with participants in their screening phase, teach some of the courses, and help students find employment when they have completed the program. 

"Our training is so good because they get all these certifications and licenses so they can work in a myriad number of jobs," Paul says.

Graduates have been hired by U.S. Steel Corporation on Zug Island, others have worked on oil spill projects in Kalamazoo and New Orleans and many go on to work in lead abatement or asbestos removal. 

Program leaders rely on the feedback of employers to best fit the needs of the industry. This relationship ensures the creation of not only qualified job candidates but also available positions in the working world. 

Construction isn’t the only thing the programs teach. Lessons in resume building, job etiquette, CPR and first aid, computer skills, and conflict resolution are required. Plus, each organization acts as a support hub for their trainees. The programs keep tabs on alumni, provide up-training and networking, and strongly encourage the importance of community participation. Southwest Solutions, a partner in the Detroit GreenWorks Solutions coalition provides case managers to assist trainees with personal obstacles such as transportation or housing complications. 

The programs’ commitment to their graduates combined with the quality of the coursework is evidenced by their success rate: the job placement percentages across programs average 70 percent. 

WARM’s Chris Rutherford has witnessed some of that success. "It's great when you see someone who is about to walk away from their home come into the program and see them get work and keep their house." 

Mary Freeman of SWSOL told a similar story of an unemployed, homeless veteran who came to the organization for assistance. He went on to complete the weatherization course, was hired by Home Depot and ended up buying a house of his own. DWEJ's website features true success stories written by their own alumni. 

"The green industry isn’t going anywhere," Bob Chapman, WARM’s Executive Director reminds Detroit. For the time being, there are plenty of Detroiters in need of inventive job solutions, financial stability, and the skills to reduce energy use and lower energy bills. And luckily, Detroit has a hefty stock of buildings for them to work on. 

Amelia Kanan is a freelance writer, photographer and videographer. This her first special project for Model D.

Photos by Amelia Kanan

This article originally appeared in Model D.
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