Smart buildings need smart workers

BOSTON IS SEEING fast growth and, with that, an increase in green buildings and sustainable design. Boston ranks fifth nationally in total LEED-certified space, outranking many of the greenest big cities.

All of that is good news for jobs in this emerging field, with growing demand for technicians to run and maintain buildings specifically designed to be environmentally responsible and make efficient use of resources. While job opportunities exist, employers across the region bemoan a skills gap that leaves them without an adequate pipeline of trained workers to accommodate this growth.

To address that gap – while also providing a pathway to good jobs – leaders from several local firms, led by officials from international construction company Skanska, approached Roxbury Community College to design an associate

degree program to address this shortage of skilled technicians to run and maintain high-performance buildings, often also referred to as green buildings or smart buildings. The program is now under development and is expected to be offered at RCC starting in 2018.

The demand for these skilled technicians is high and growing. A 2015 report by IDC Energy Insights predicted that spending across the US on smart building technology could advance at a compounded annual rate of 23 percent through 2019, with spending hitting $17.4 billion. The demand for smart building technicians is so strong in Boston that hundreds of graduates with an associate degree in this area would be needed to fill the anticipated openings in these high-paying jobs.

Major employers are learning that many of the green buildings built over the past decade don’t live up to their energy efficiency potential unless they are run properly, which requires a lot of training. These buildings are no longer the exception, they’re the rule, and a whole new generation of technicians who have the skills to run them at peak efficiency is critical. Without that skilled workforce, the buildings don’t provide either the environmental or the financial return on investment expected.

Every commercial building will eventually need these technicians, as will entities that develop, build and regulate high-performance equipment. That’s why a range of partners, including Skanska, Boston Medical Center, Automated Logic Corporation, the City of Boston, Building Technology Engineers, Inc., EMCOR Facilities Services, APA Inc., MIT, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, have joined RCC in the effort to train the workforce needed.

Massachusetts Maritime Academy will assist in the development of the curriculum and hands-on training that will focus on the building controls software that regulates the HVAC, lighting, fire protection, security, and elevator systems in smart buildings.  The advantage to this partnership is that students who complete the associate degree will have the opportunity to transfer seamlessly to Mass Maritime to complete a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field.

Other organizations, such as Madison Park Technical Vocational High School and YouthBuild, the national non-profit that brings at-risk youth into the construction workforce, have also participated to ensure that high school students and others understand the opportunities in this new career pathway.

Adam Jacobs, energy manager for the City of Boston and part of the consortium planning the new degree program, noted that developing a curriculum for this new career pathway involves a deep understanding of the complicated infrastructure of smart buildings.

“To run a new high performance building with countless energy features like heat recovery ventilation and air-side economizers all tied to a single building automation system, the operators need to layer in an understanding of basic thermodynamics, energy economics, and a bit of systems thinking,” he said.

“But this isn’t just about training technicians,” Jacobs continued. “Building developers are making an investment in energy efficiency, and it’s important both for the environment and their bottom lines to make sure those investments are paying off.  If we plan to meet our ambitious emissions reduction targets at the state and local level, we need to make sure our workforce is ready to meet that challenge.”

RCC is also the perfect host for this program due to its own current renewable energy project that seeks to utilize the very technology that is used in other smart buildings across Boston.  The state-funded RCC energy project, which includes a new solar canopy above a campus parking lot and 115 geothermal wells 500 feet beneath it, will save the college an estimated $860,000 in energy costs annually.

Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center reported that in 2106, the state surpassed 100,000 clean energy workers for the first time.  The center also reported that clean energy economy employees account for 2.9 percent of the state’s labor market, a 75 percent increase since 2010.

Meet the Author

James Jones

Sr. Dir., Business Development, Skanska
Meet the Author

Valerie Roberson

President, Roxbury Community College
More importantly for the students at RCC, these are also well paying jobs. Almost 70 percent of the clean energy sector’s full-time workers earn at least $50,000 annually. The new program will help Boston residents who strive every day to pay their rent and feed their families to take advantage of these career opportunities and make their dream of joining the middle class a reality.

James Jones is senior director of business development at Skanska and board member of the US Green Building Council, Massachusetts Chapter. Valerie Roberson is president of Roxbury Community College.

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