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High-Performance Building Operator

Piloted in California earlier this year, the High-Performance Building Operator Program (HPBOP) will eventually be available for adoption at community colleges nationwide. More than 250 stakeholder organizations across the United States were surveyed to gain acceptance of this ground-breaking program.

Jim CaldwellJim Caldwell
Statewide Director and Sector Navigator
Energy, Construction, & Utilities
California Community College System

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Do automated buildings need human intervention to stay intelligent?  Not really.  But they do need humans to make sure they continue to serve tenants well, produce a strong return on investment, and assure a low carbon footprint.

Research shows that half of California’s commercial HVAC systems are not installed or maintained to their specified performance level.  There’s a similar problem with lighting controls.  Clearly, these are human problems not easily solved by automation.  As a result, workforce quality presents a significant barrier to meeting California’s mandate of Zero Net Energy in 50% of the state’s 10 billion square feet of commercial space by 2030.

The low output from the state’s talent pipeline is also a problem.  For example, 3,200 new Facility Managers are required annually in four Southern California counties. Less than 100 receive an accredited credential in Facility Management in those counties each year.

The California Community Colleges began investing heavily in energy efficiency training for the skilled trades in 2014, funding programs at 66 of the state’s 114 colleges.  More than 15,000 students have completed those programs to date.  But, the bigger issue is the 300,000 incumbent workers that need new skills for consistently meeting the state’s energy efficiency code.  And unfortunately, many new workers learn from incumbents whose on-the-job skills are not up to par.  This workforce is not keeping pace with technology, so the problem becomes worse over time.  Especially troubling is the expanding gap between traditional functions in the trades versus skills required for microgrids, energy storage, automated demand response, and other rapidly evolving technologies.

It may seem counterintuitive, but training more people and cultivating higher skill levels are not the hardest parts of solving the workforce quality problem.  Students – especially millennials – aren’t lining up to enter the trades.  It just not their thing, or so they think.  Employers have trouble releasing their workers to be trained.  Why would they?  Most operate in a low-bid environment where workforce quality isn’t valued, so they have trouble seeing a return on time lost to training. 

A systemic change is needed.  One that creates new student perspectives, stronger incentives for employers to develop a quality workforce, and greater flexibility to invest in training programs with the highest contribution to the state’s energy efficiency mandates. 

No single organization can “own” the energy efficiency workforce challenge.  The system is comprised of many stakeholders, each with a different mission and funding stream.  So, the California Community Colleges joined forces with apprenticeship programs for electricians, sheet metal workers, plumbers and pipefitters, and building engineers to create a Coalition for Energy Efficiency.   At the same time, it began building advisory councils among stakeholder groups:  Commercial Real Estate Property Owners and Managers plus associations for the HVAC, Lighting Controls, Energy Consultants, Facility Management, and Automation industries.  Emerging from these alliances is a common mission to build a high-capacity pipeline of new workers and to upgrade the incumbent workforce, all with the competencies to meet California’s Zero Net Energy mandates.

Much work remains.  Silos and fragmented efforts still characterize California’s energy efficiency training landscape.  Progress is being accelerated through a California Energy Commission investment to strengthen the alignment of forces orchestrated by the Community Colleges.   Through this investment, the California Community Colleges will lead the development of the Workforce Alignment Action Plan (WAAP) in concert with an industry-led forum focused on energy efficiency workforce mandates. This forum organizes representatives of utilities, building owners and managers, contractors, developers, community colleges, registered apprenticeship programs, workforce development boards, community-based organizations, and government agencies in meeting common workforce goals.

Meanwhile back in the trenches, new training initiatives are flourishing.  Our strategy is to give priority to those occupations with the highest potential to impact overall quality of the energy efficiency workforce.  We initially focused on Building Engineers.  This occupation is strategic because Building Engineers are in a unique position to control performance in a commercial building.  They connect with everybody – installation contractors, service contractors, architects, engineers, tenants, owners, and managers.  Facility Managers were the next focal point, adding the dimensions of capital improvements, project management, cost controls, energy management, etc.  We addressed installation and maintenance by adding energy efficiency emphasis to existing HVAC and lighting controls technician training programs.

Facility Management is the model program.  Working with the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) we signed an agreement to integrate their Essentials of Facility Management online curriculum into Associates Degree programs at twenty colleges statewide.  Supporting this licensing arrangement is an Operating Agreement between the Community Colleges and IFMA to jointly build a Facility Management Talent Pipeline according to annual plans developed for each region in the state.  In the first few months after execution of these agreements, two colleges announced Facility Management programs for this fall, and a third is on track for January.

Piloted in California earlier this year, the High-Performance Building Operator Program (HPBOP) will eventually be available for adoption at community colleges nationwide. More than 250 stakeholder organizations across the United States were surveyed to gain acceptance of this ground-breaking program.  Its initial target is custom training for journey-level workers, but the curriculum is planned for integration into Building Automation certificate and degree programs.  Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and the California Community Colleges. 

Nineteen community colleges are in the process of aligning their HVAC curriculum with an industry-recognized entry-level credential.  When complete, this alignment will assure consistent student learning outcomes throughout the state, giving employers a more reliable source of HVAC technicians.  It also provides a foundation for all HVAC technicians to earn “stackable credentials” in specialty areas such as refrigeration or advanced controls and in market segments such as hospitality and hospitals.

Advanced Lighting Controls training has been a joint project of IBEW/NECA and the California Community Colleges for several years.  Trainees include electricians, contractors, and acceptance testers.  Programs are in process for “specifiers” such as architects and lighting designers and for decision-makers including building owners and managers.

Research is underway for new programs in Advanced Building Automation and Energy Auditing and Analytics.  These programs are supported in some cases by colleges that have developed “Campus as a Living Lab” to bring these professions to life.

The talent pipeline, of course, needs a strong input to produce the number of skilled workers needed by industry.  Research by UC Davis revealed ways to effectively attract students into HVAC careers, which appears to be applicable to many energy efficiency occupations.  An Enrollment Marketing program integrates social media, career assessment tools, a “Concierge Service” for applicants, and guided career pathways to build evidence for attracting students who are likely to complete a certificate or degree program.  This pilot launches later this year and is expected to inform energy efficiency enrollment campaigns statewide.

California’s legislature is setting a fast pace in clean energy and pollution reduction.  The California Community Colleges are encouraged to find such strong support for a workforce capable of meeting the state’s legislative mandates.


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