A Look Into IHP’s YouthBuild Partnership: Introducing Young, Bright Minds to the EE Industry

Ray Fleming Headshot

With many contractors suffering from a lack of enthusiastic and skilled workers, introducing young people into the energy efficiency industry is crucial. This industry is known for skewing primarily older (and nearing retirement), male, and lacking diversity. Partnering with community organizations that offer training opportunities to under-privileged youth is a great way to bring fresh, new faces into the industry and to encourage a more diverse workforce.

In August, MEEA’s Illinois Home Performance (IHP) program worked with Chicago Heights’ YouthBuild cohort to bring energy efficiency education to young adults in Chicago’s south suburbs. YouthBuild is a program that provides youth living in poverty with pathways to education, jobs and entrepreneurship, ultimately leading to productive livelihoods and community leadership. With a focus on construction, carpentry and skill-based trades, YouthBuild programs “unleash the positive energy of low-income young people to rebuild their communities and their lives, breaking the cycle of poverty with a commitment to work, education, family and community.”

The Chicago Heights YouthBuild cohort, run out of the Bethel Family Resource center, is led by Ray Fleming. Mr. Fleming has quickly become a friend to the Illinois Home Performance team, and we were very excited to provide his group with a free training opportunity. On August 14th and 15th, IHP sponsored the Building Science Principles course for 15 of Mr. Fleming’s YouthBuild participants. Richard Reilly from the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Earthways Center did an amazing job instructing the course and keeping all students engaged and on-task.

The Building Science Principles (BSP) course is the Building Performance Institute’s first step into the world of home performance, with curriculum focusing on how various components of a home interact to affect the home’s overall performance.  This course helps students understand relationships between building envelope, heating, A/C, insulation and other systems. The BSP Certificate of Knowledge is earned by studying the curriculum and successfully completing the online exam with a passing score.

We sat down with Mr. Fleming to find out more about his involvement with the YouthBuild program and how he thinks this newly introduced energy efficiency curriculum will impact these young people’s futures. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

MEEA: How did you get involved in YouthBuild? What brought you to this opportunity?

RF: I’ve been working with young people for a very long time, first with social service agencies, then as a mentor at an alternative school, then as a principal for an alternative school in Little Village. When I left the alternative school network, I eventually received a call from a former coworker saying an organization needed employer engagement. Since my thing is networking and getting out and talking to folks, I said “yeah, I can do that.” It gave me an opportunity to get out there and stay in contact with young people. That was 10 years ago, and I’ve been involved in YouthBuild ever since. For a while I managed two separate programs and did a pretty decent job with it. I ended up choosing Bethel in Chicago Heights versus the city. The school was better for me, and I had the autonomy to do things the way I wanted to.

MEEA: What is the focus of the YouthBuild program?

RF: While on the surface it’s about construction and carpentry, it’s really about all the other elements – sales, appraising, home inspections, building a team. And what I really love about the program is that it’s a gamechanger for many of these young people. This could be a life changer – it leads to so many opportunities. I talk to them about certifications a lot. I’m trying to get them certificates to make them more marketable in the workforce. You don’t have to be a person that wants to get into construction and carpentry. I have kids that went on to college.

MEEA: That leads to my next question – what have YouthBuild members gone on to do?

RF: A lot of my folks go on to college. I have one guy in my earlier cohort – he’s in his fourth year of apprenticeship with a carpenter’s union, so he’s doing great. I have somebody who’s working in management with FedEx. And of course, I’ve lost some folks – I have some folks that went back to jail unfortunately.

MEEA: You mentioned to me earlier that YouthBuild participants get a stipend…?

RF: Yeah, anybody who’s in YouthBuild gets a weekly stipend -- $75 a week. It really helps them out. If you’re a teen parent, you can use that $75, whether you want to do construction or not. If you’re planning on going to college, you can use this $75 leading up to that.

MEEA: What is the age range of the participants?

RF: 16 to 25. This is challenging in itself. I have a 25 year-old who’s grown and a 16 year-old who’s barely there. You’ve got to bridge that gap. Then I have smokers, I have the drinkers, you know. This program is about young folks who are out of school – getting them back in, getting them engaged, working with them towards a high school diploma or GED.

MEEA: Now, how do you think this energy efficiency education is going to help the students? I know that there’s a goal through this program to rehab a house, correct?

RF: Yeah, at the end of the cohort cycle, the young folks gut rehab a house right here in the community. It’s definitely going to help with that -- and not only that, but also with connecting the dots. What I might do is say to those young folks that I’m going to give them a $25 incentive to go home, assess their own home and come back with an idea of how to make it more energy efficient.

MEEA: That’s a great idea. Energy efficiency is just so important and there are so many opportunities in this field now. It’s getting bigger and bigger because of the impact of energy use on the environment – people are starting to notice that things are getting bad.

RF: They don’t hear it. They don’t know. That’s why it’s key that I talk to them about this stuff.

MEEA: I really admire what you’re doing for these young folks. You’re helping them in such a profound way.

RF: You know, what I try to talk to them about is confidence, confidence, confidence. “You can do it”. But you know, so many of them are beat down. They’ve been beat down and sometimes the problem they blame it on is at home. No one is telling them they can do it. Sometimes, that’s my battle. I only get them for 3 to 4 hours a day, twice a week, and then they go back to wherever. But a program like this is really good.

After the two-day course, 10 of the 15 students in class passed their Building Science Principles exam, earning their Certificate of Knowledge. The students were incredibly engaged and showed a huge interest in the material covered, asking pointed and thoughtful questions as the class went on. MEEA is thrilled to have introduced 15 individuals with immense potential to the energy efficiency industry.