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Growing Green Jobs in Southwest Virginia

Story by: Denise Young, Assistant Editor, Virginia Tech Magazine 

Reprinted with permission from the department of Outreach & International Affairs, Virginia Tech 

A recent $3.8 million grant has left southwest Virginia poised for the future—a greener future, that is. Called the CREATES grant, it provided free green-jobs training for workers.

Stephen Bishop, a CREATES trainee who studied energy auditing, gave high marks to the education he received. “If [my employer] does get into that line of work, I think I’ll be the first one in line for the job.” Bishop, of Riner, Virginia, added, “I think [the CREATES training] was a really good chance for people to hone their skills.” He was one of almost 500 southwest Virginia residents who benefited from the program.

The partnership behind the grant includes a number of agencies, among them: 

·         Community Housing Partners (CHP), the grant administrator

·         New River Community College 

·         New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Investment Board 

·         Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council 

·         Western Virginia Workforce Development Board 

·         Wytheville Community College

·         Virginia Western Community College

The range of programs runs the gamut, from one-day certificates to funding coursework for associate degrees, from weatherization to solar-panel installation – even small-business development. 

Walter Benda, owner of Blue Ridge Sun, said CREATES provided the perfect opportunity to help him launch a new business in solar energy. “The CREATES program has been an extremely positive experience for me, not just in terms of education, but also networking in the field.” He said the skills he learned – from courses on solar energy and electricity to a small-business seminar – have proved beneficial.

The program served a wide variety of workers, from the unemployed who were looking for another line of work to the currently employed seeking to gain new skills and remain competitive. “It’s been so fulfilling to me personally because you work with folks who may have been out of work for such a long time,” said Rhonda Womble, program specialist for the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Investment Area. “And to have this opportunity to go back to school and have their tuition and books paid for, and to see them go through the training and a job search and find a job – it’s an amazing experience.” 

The CREATES grant is one of three totaling $10 million spearheaded by Virginia Tech’s Office of Economic Development to help with job creation in western Virginia. “The great thing about this grant is that it is preparing workers for jobs that will only continue to multiply as construction and other industries turn greener,” said Director John Provo.

Building a workforce for today … and tomorrow
The grant pays for job training for participants, creating a workforce that will meet an anticipated higher demand for energy efficiency and renewable energies.

“You hear a lot about people who can’t find work,” said Doloris Vest, president of the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board. “What you don’t hear about is employers who can’t find employees with the right skills. There’s a mismatch between job-seekers’ skills and the needs of the employer.” Vest called the CREATES program “the icing on the cake,” training that not only helps job-seekers find work today, but also ensures they’ll still be competitive for years to come.

“We’ve had contractors tell us that it’s such a wonderful thing to hire employees who have green energy training because they have customers looking for solar panels or weatherization,” said Womble, who noted that training isn’t limited to renewable energies. “In a lot of instances, we’ve provided an opportunity for a job that’s not considered green, like HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning], but we also provided green knowledge to meet an oncoming demand for sustainability.”

John Scalise, a construction manager for Blacksburg-based Progress Street Builders, said the grant has helped the company meet a growing customer demand for energy efficiency, as well as provided knowledge for regulations that might be on the horizon. 

Scalise, along with three of his employees, participated in the training, and said he feels like the company is now one step ahead. “I think it’s going to take home-building companies with higher skills and deeper training to meet the demands of an increasing regulatory environment and the consumers’ demand for more energy efficient and safer homes. We have a highly trained workforce now. When the economy improves, we’ll be able to meet that demand.”

The grant, which began Jan. 15, 2010, lasted two years, with a six-month extension through July to help participants find jobs. Still, Vest said, the effect of the grant is far from short term. “The stimulus might end,” she said. “But the impact continues.”

Brighter futures, greener pastures
While some participants were currently employed in their fields, many were displaced or unemployed workers, such as Nora Smith. Smith, of Salem, Virginia, heard about the program from Vincent Randall, a program specialist with the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board. Smith attended a job fair in fall 2010, at which Randall was handing out information about CREATES. “He said, ‘Would you like some free job training?’ I’d been unemployed since January, and I said, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”

Smith, who holds a master’s degree in vocational and technical training, originally intended to be a teacher, but the recession and the elimination of business-education programs at schools put a damper on her dreams. Thanks to the CREATES grant, Smith is now studying alternative energy management at Virginia Western Community College and working part time as a commercial energy assessor and technical writer for the Volunteers for Energy program. Though she’s plunged into a new career later in life, she loves her job and said her training makes her more optimistic about her job prospects. 

Chad Chenier of Rocky Mount, Virginia, is a former carpenter and current student at Virginia Western Community College.  He credits the CREATES grant with training that will give him new opportunities. “It’s allowed me to pursue learning in college in a way that’s going to get me somewhere rather than just learning on my own.”

Through a unique “reverse job fair” at which job-seekers take the stage and potential employers listen instead of setting up booths – Randall’s brainchild, inspired by his theater background – coordinated by the Western Virginia Workforce Development Board, Chenier found work providing energy assessments for commercial, institutional, government buildings such as churches, college buildings, restaurants, and call centers. The combination of hands-on job experience and classroom training makes him optimistic about the future. “Even with just the experience from that job, I’m confident about where my future is going.”

“We offered a lot of hope to people who thought this was the end of the road,” said Randall. He said the variety of training options was one of the program’s greatest strengths. “We were able to customize solutions for every individual. If you had something that was a cardboard cutout, take-it-or-leave-it, not as many people would’ve been successful.”

An entrepreneurial spirit
For Fil Quesenberry, the CREATES grant helped him fulfill his dream of starting a solar-energy company. At age 68, following a career in real estate, Quesenberry felt called to start a renewable energy business. “I was tired of seeing what was happening to our environment – with greenhouse gases and burning fossil fuels.” But environmental sustainability wasn’t the only reason. “I saw a lot of young families struggling with the price of electricity going up, and a lot of them were losing their jobs as well. I wanted to help the neighbor out and keep my prices down low.”

After a conversation with Womble, Quesenberry followed up his extensive independent research with hands-on training, earning his contractor’s license along the way. He then founded Green Power Company, which, in 2011, installed seven different systems, ranging from solar hot water to wind turbine.

Monica Rokicki and Barry Martin founded Roanoke-based Better Building Works, a company that marries building science with design. The company started out as a two-person firm but is currently bringing on three new employees. “So far, within eight months, training one person, it created five jobs, hired three people, and we’re also exceeding our first-year projections – maybe double – even though it’s a bad economy,” said Rokicki, who participated in the training. But the support of CREATES – both the program training and staff – goes beyond the classroom. “It’s one thing to have some skills, but it’s another to be an entrepreneur. And there’s support out there for that.” The CREATES program linked Better Building Works with resources such as the Roanoke Small Business Administration

The program also provided small-business development training on topics such as writing a business plan, seeking venture capital, or networking, to ensure that the budding businesses had a strong foundation.

Rokicki credits the program administrators with great follow-through, continuing to support participants even after they finished training. “It’s really an ongoing connection.”

Benda said he will likely call on the connections he made through CREATES. “As business expands, I plan to call on [fellow students] as business resources in many ways.”

Like others, he anticipates a growing demand for greener energy in the future – whether that means improving energy efficiency or turning to solar or wind energy. “Solar and wind energy are really the best energy for the future.” 

In other words, green is growing, and southwest Virginia is ready.

Fruitful partnerships
Womble noted that adding jobs to an emerging industry isn’t the only benefit that has come out of the grant. “There’s been a wonderful relationship established between the workforce investment boards and the local community colleges. There’s been a great collaborative effort amongst all the community colleges, members of the business community, Virginia Tech, who have seen this grant through.”

“We crossed geographical lines to work with our partners, but everybody understood that we all had a very important role to play,” said Marty Holliday, deputy director of the New River/Mount Rogers Workforce Investment Area. Holliday said the lessons learned throughout the course of the grant offered a new perspective on collaboration. “We are looking at partnerships as a live activity. More people are willing to sit down at the table and talk about the what-ifs, and I think we’re also more appreciative about what the other agencies do.”

Kim Strahm, director of corporate development at CHP, agreed, adding that the workforce development boards played a crucial part in the program’s success. “They played a key role in making sure each participant got the best fit for what would best suit their needs and future employment.” By adding green-energy courses to community college curricula, establishing new partnerships between agencies throughout the region, and, most important, providing workers with the skills they need both for today and the future, the CREATES grant is ensuring a sunny and sustainable future for southwest Virginia. 

In addition, the CREATES grant has invested more than $1 million in new equipment at the three participating community colleges. The new courses, training programs, and hands-on lab environments will, of course, continue at the colleges after the grant ends.


- End Date:  Originally January 14, 2012.  Extension through July 14, 2012  will focus on business development and employment placement

- 491 total participants served

- 130 were previously unemployed

- 234 were employed in the field (incumbent)

- 69 were dislocated workers

- By the end of 2011, 192 individuals had entered employment.  Some are still in training.