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Going Green: City program helps employees land environmental industry jobs

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The city of Springfield’s receipt of a three-year, $200,000 grant in 2016 led to the development of a training program that has directly resulted in nearly 40 people gaining new jobs in the environmental industry.

Green for Greene, a program that trains individuals in 13 certification areas for work in environmentally related careers, was born from the grant, with the first training cohort graduating in March 2017. At the conclusion of the free five-week program, participants earn certifications needed for such jobs as heavy machine drivers, asbestos removers and insulation technicians in the construction, manufacturing and transportation industries.

Last year, the Environmental Workforce Development Job Training grant was awarded to the city a second time, said Wendy Graves, Green for Greene program administrator with the Missouri Job Center. The second $200,000 award through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency begins this year and continues through 2021.

“Usually, people have to submit it several times before they’re awarded,” she said. “We got the grant our very first submission.”

In 2017 and 2018, each cohort had 28 people enrolled, Graves said, with 38 of the 56 achieving full-time employment in environmental fields – a nearly 68 percent rate. Average starting pay for those individuals was $15.06 per hour, she said.

Mutually beneficial
Sunbelt Environmental Services Inc. has been a beneficiary of the program from its inception, said Steve Schaefer, the firm’s solar development manager.

Schaefer said his father Lee was on the advisory board for the Green for Greene program when it started – a role he now fills. He assists with the interview process of selecting candidates for the program and some of the subsequent training sessions.

Sunbelt has hired 10 graduates from the first two cohorts.

“That’s really the training that we give people when they come aboard here,” he said.

Because the grant covers all training costs, Schaefer estimated his company has saved $10,000-$20,000 and at least a couple months of staff time if it had to conduct its own employee training.

“They come licensed already and have an awareness of what they’re getting into,” he said.

Through the program, Sunbelt has hired truck drivers with hazmat endorsement, workers for asbestos and lead abatement projects, and solar construction employees, Schaefer said.

The renewable energy industry, including solar and geothermal jobs, continues to grow, he added.

According to the Solar Jobs Census, released annually by The Solar Foundation, the national solar workforce increased 168 percent between 2010 and 2017, the most recent data available. In 2017, there were about 250,000 jobs, up from 93,000 in 2010.

Abbey Million, one of Sunbelt’s hires through Green for Greene, said she learned of the program in late 2016 via her mother Cindy. The timing was ideal, Million said, as she was treading water in a $10 per hour job with Brown Derby Stores Inc.

The single mother of three had never previously considered a job in the environmental industry but saw the program as a chance to try something new. 

“I was unaware that there were so many opportunities, and I had actually never heard of Sunbelt until I started the application process for entering Green for Greene,” Million said.

She was hired after graduating from the first cohort in March 2017, and her starting pay was $14 per hour. Million obtained her commercial driver’s license, as well as Occupational Safety and Health Administration training for hazardous waste operations and emergency response through the program.

Making a change
Only the first two years of the grant are designated for the cohorts, Graves said, with the third year serving as a follow-up with the program participants. However, because the city is able to utilize funding for the second grant this year, the cohorts will continue, with classes scheduled to begin Feb. 20 and again in June.

The first week is held at the Job Center, teaching soft skills, financial literacy, resume building and interview tips. For the remaining four weeks, participants will visit Environmental Works Inc. and Southwest Missouri Safety Co. to receive certification training.

“This year, we’re doing it a little bit different. We kind of tweaked it and we’re actually going to run two cohorts of 14 participants each,” Graves said, adding the same plan is in place for 2020.

Schaefer said some of Sunbelt’s current workforce of 50 employees, like Million, were seeking a change and found a shift to the green industry through the cohort. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for folks to step into something new, make a decent living and do your part to help clean things up,” he said.

Million said she’s thankful that Green for Greene led her toward a new career path, and a more lucrative one, too. 

“It definitely has improved my situation. I have a lot less stress now, even though I have a more demanding job,” she said of her field technician position that involves driving a truck to haul hazardous materials and equipment across the state. “It’s definitely not for everybody, but if you’re willing to work hard and learn every day, it’s a rewarding job.”

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