Portland program grooms at-risk youths for green jobs

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PORTLAND — When Samantha Strout was looking for a job, she came across information about a course that trained people to become certified weatherization technicians. Tired of what seemed like an endless string of retail jobs, Strout decided to give it a shot.

On Sept. 3, Strout was one of 21 graduates of the LearningWorks Weatherization Corps, a program funded by an $88,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant from Goodwill Industries of New England.

LearningWorks Executive Director Ethan Strimling applauded the students, who were either immigrants, low-income, homeless or high school dropouts, for their high completion rate.

Not only did 21 of the 22 people in the program graduate, but six have been offered jobs by local contractors, five are going to college, five are applying for the carpenter’s union and five are still seeking placement. 

“We don’t have a program at LearningWorks that has that high a retention rate,” Strimling said. “That’s phenomenal. You are a tremendous example for all of us.”

Although there were many other similar grants awarded throughout the country, the LearningWorks program was the first to incorporate a pre-apprenticeship component, which turned out to be key to its success.

Bill Getz, who coordinated the program, said the students each put in 200 hours to receive their certification. Students spent 100 hours studying and being tested in weatherization and other industry-related fields and 100 hours in the field actually doing the work.

Jane Gilbert, deputy director of the state Department of Labor, said the apprenticeship component is central to the state’s strategy to get the biggest bang for the dollar.

“You’re learning an occupation we’re going to need in the state of Maine well into the future” Gilbert said. “Whenever you hear people talk about the sexy jobs and the green economy, you’re it. You’re here on the front line.”

Getz said students, who are between the ages of 18 and 24, put in 10 to 12 hours a day with professionals from Westbrook-based Biosafe Environmental and Yarmouth-based Warmtech Solutions to weatherize 26 homes in Southern Maine; 16 of those homes were in Portland. 

Not only did students get first-hand experience in the field with professionals from Biosafe and Warmtech Solutions, but some students were offered jobs with those companies.

Bill Cummings, who oversaw the training program, said the students were leaving with more than just the skills they had learned.

“(This certificate) means you can be here on the first day and you can be here on the last day,” Cumming said, before handing out the certificates at the LearningWorks headquarters at 181 Brackett  St. “And that means a lot to an employer.”

Strout, who was selected as a peer leader early in the program, was one of the students to be offered a job and she is excited to begin. 

“This is a really good opportunity for me,” said the 23-year-old Westbrook mother of two. “Not only did it teach me new skills, but it helped me get my life back on track.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net


LearningWorks1.JPGSamantha Strout, 23, of Westbrook, receives the first weatherization certificate from LearningWorks, a Portland-based nonprofit that offered a 200-hour training course to low-income and at-risk youth. (Billings photo)

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LearningWorks2.JPGJane Gilbert, deputy director of the Maine Department of Labor, address a group of students at LearningWorks during their weatherization graduation ceremony at 181 Brackett St., Portland.