Holistic home work: Green jobs company trains underserved populations to find solutions beyond performance

Andre Thomas said there’s a lot about homes that can be characterized as remaining largely out of sight, out of mind. And he’s not just talking about attics or basements.

The way he sees it, the carbon emissions impact of older housing stock hasn’t had much visibility; neither have the environmental hazards often encountered in homes in lower-income communities that are already overlooked in other regards.

That’s why the organization he works for, Isles Inc., is trying to bring those issues to light. In the name of instilling “self-reliance,” Thomas said, the Trenton-based outfit also wants to train individuals from disadvantaged communities to do the work involved in making more environmentally friendly renovations to homes themselves.

The organization, which has been around since 1981, has been named one of the members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s New Jersey Council on the Green Economy. That executive order-established group supports the administration’s clean energy goals.

Ben Haygood.

“Jobs that address the energy efficiency of homes can be a big part of that,” said Ben Haygood, director of policy and partnerships for Isles. “And it’s really something that’s just starting to come to fruition now.”

Advocates of greener buildings say one of the main challenges before them is ensuring there’s a contractor and installer workforce properly trained and committed to bringing eco-friendly features into homes and other structures. This local group is addressing that concern, while also addressing concerns that there’s not a diverse enough workforce in this or other areas.

Isles trains both at-risk youth as well unemployed adults for work in energy efficiency and building performance fields that are trending — and grabbing headlines with the debate stirred up over gas stoves and other appliances. The individuals they’re looking to provide services to come away with certification in home assessment and remediation as well as more basic job-readiness skills, Haygood said.

“There are integral pieces of workforce development or jobs programs that can’t be overlooked,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have interviewing skills, for instance. And I’m not saying that lightly: As someone who was raised in more of a middle-class environment, there’s a lot of skills like that that I needed training on.”

The organization also provides other education, including GEDs, and financial, transportation and child care support to trainees when needed.

Thomas, a former inmate who has flourished as a training manager for Isles over the past two decades, said that’s removing whatever barriers stand in the way of individuals turning their lives around. Ultimately, he adds, it’s also developing a robust workforce in the region.

As senior training manager for Isles’ Center for Energy and Environmental Training, he teaches individuals about contract work involving building energy efficiency. But a large focus of the training and certification classes he teaches today goes further, and prepares individuals to correct roof leaks, pest issues and other health threats in homes.

“The reason why that fits into our work is because we’re doing energy efficiency measures in homes, (but) we also want to make sure homes are environmentally safe,” he said. “It fits into the trend of healthy homes initiatives, which look for asthma triggers, poor ventilation, pest infestation, lead, asbestos — all of those things.”

Ideally, Isles looks to produce professionals that can not only install eco-friendly and weatherization building fixtures, but also audit those buildings. Thomas said that ensures that, after installations are done, its professionals can also test to ensure changes to a home didn’t compromise the health of the home or occupants, such as by creating potential fire hazards.

“Because, a lot of times, when guys get hired, they’re put in positions that don’t help connect them to the bigger picture or get them acclimated to understanding the process of healthy homes that also reduce emissions,” Thomas said. “We want them to treat the house holistically.”

The entry level work in this field isn’t easy, Thomas admits. There are a lot of crawl spaces, and hands-on work in dusty parts of the house that are far from comfortable.

But the organization’s leaders believe they’re building a foundation for a new workforce that can easily lead to more advanced building analyst roles — and other opportunities to move up the career ladder.

“Through this, folks in our communities are not only able to choose a viable career path that provides a good living, but also one that addresses safety issues in the community around them,” he said. “And, importantly, they’re helping us be more efficient as a state in stopping climate change. Because, if we don’t address issues regarding climate change, it’s just going to lead to more storms and more problems for New Jersey’s homes.”