Contractors – those who install energy efficiency upgrades in buildings – are the backbone of the EE industry. However, despite being crucial market actors to ensuring upgrades are properly installed, programs are sometimes designed or updated without consulting contractors to understand how their businesses may be impacted. Contractors are also grappling with labor shortages and an aging workforce, even though they often offer high wages and on-the-job training. For energy efficiency programs and the industry as a whole to reach their full potential, it is crucial that these matters are considered and that program administrators work with contractors and stakeholders to mitigate these issues.
The recent Midwest Energy Solutions Conference featured a workshop focused on increasing program participation and results through contractor engagement. To kick things off, MEEA invited four speakers to briefly share their experiences working with contractors. First, Joe Nunley from Performance Systems Development offered his unique perspective, having been a contractor himself and now working on the program delivery side. Joe made it clear: if you want to see success in your programs, you need to have a partnership with your contractor network. He explained that it is critical administrators recognize contractors are working with the program, not for the program. Program administrators should check in with contractors prior to designing or updating programs to understand the potential business implications and agree upon a program design that will be most beneficial to both the program and its contractors.
Next, Sam Rinaldi from the Energy Resources Center shared his thoughts and experience establishing and managing contractor networks. Sam conveyed lessons he learned along the way, including the need to support, educate and motivate contractors while being considerate of their time. He found success in recognizing top-performing contractors and providing them with outreach opportunities that allow them to engage with potential customers.
David Anderson from ICF then presented on Consumers Energy’s Contractor Badge Ranking System. This system provides participating contractors with performance reports revealing how they are performing in comparison to other participating contractors on key metrics that are meaningful to them. These include number of applications submitted, customer satisfaction ratings, record of following application procedures and completion of training sessions. Top-performing contractors are distinguished with gold-level status, which allows access to marketing resources and priority listing on program websites.
Finally, KC Doyle with ComEd presented on ComEd’s Diverse Energy Efficiency Service Provider Incubator Program. This innovative eight-week training program works to introduce minority-owned businesses to ComEd’s energy efficiency program offerings. It strives to understand the barriers that may hinder these contractors from participating in ComEd’s program offerings, and provides tools and resources to overcome them. Many graduates of the program move on to become ComEd partners and participating energy efficiency service providers.
With these valuable insights and inspiration, participants in the workshop then worked in small groups to brainstorm solutions to two scenarios:
Participants were instructed to imagine they were a residential weatherization program manager for a combination utility, so had gas and electric savings targets. Mid-way through the program year, a top-performing contractor that historically submitted 30% of the program’s project applications announced it is closing. The owner is retiring and does not have anyone to pass the business on to. The participants were asked: What short term actions will you take to ensure you hit your goals this year?
Several creative solutions were discussed, including researching other utility energy efficiency programs to see if there are strategies that may fit program needs and ensuring remaining contractors are aware of the business void (and that there is more work available). Contractor incentives were a popular potential solution, and strategies included offering bonus incentives or tiered incentives depending on the number of jobs submitted. Attendees also explored the idea of conducting outreach to the remaining contractors to see what they need to succeed and whether there were any resources the program could provide to help increase their participation, such as trainings or marketing campaigns. Lastly, participants posed the idea of conducting an exit interview with the retiring contractor to receive insight into what made them so successful, and to see if they may be willing to mentor lower-performing contractors or sell their business leads to the remaining contractors.
After this exercise, attendees were presented with a second scenario.
Attendees were asked to imagine they moved to a new role at the utility, focused on workforce development. In this new role, they understand that participating contractors are having issues finding skilled labor. Contractors must turn away potential jobs because they do not have the workforce capacity. The utility and commission have approved investment into a workforce development program to try to solve these issues. The program is intended to directly benefit the entire residential portfolio within the next six years. Attendees were given a program budget of ~$500,000/year and asked to design an ideal program.
Many groups discussed the opportunity to leverage resources already in place, such as community colleges, trade schools and training curriculums focused on equipping the next generation of contractors. Attendees noted opportunities to create bilingual education programs, to promote any funding that is available and to use high school programs as a potential workforce pipeline. Groups weighed the possibility of using the funding to create some type of apprenticeship program engaging contractors to hire participants. Partnering with veteran organizations and unemployment agencies were also noted as potential program components. One program idea was to develop an awareness campaign regarding the trades, with messaging centered around the opportunity to be your own boss, eliminate student debt and own your own business. Groups also identified the need to incorporate energy efficiency into existing home building programs.
After the interactive exercises, each group was given the opportunity to report out on their most promising ideas.
While the scenarios presented to participants were imaginary, these issues are still very much prevalent in our industry today. It is imperative that energy efficiency program administrators work with contractors to develop solutions to tackle workforce shortages and ensure programs are designed with contractors in mind. After all, even the most innovative energy-saving technology will have little impact if there is no one there to install it.
Do you have experience working with contractors and/or creating workforce development opportunities? Reach out to Kara Jonas at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your resources and unique perspective.