DOWNERS GROVE – In 2008, Downers Grove resident Paul Gawley had the best year of business in his career. But by December of that year, the work abruptly stopped as the economy grounded to a halt.
"Projects that were ready for groundbreaking, nothing happened," he said. "There was just a freeze in the capital."
A Navy veteran, Gawley runs his own construction project management business. In the slow national economic recovery since 2008, he has been underemployed, he said, and looking for ways to expand his expertise and opportunities.
So, last month, he completed a new free course for veterans at the College of DuPage that teaches skills critical to the burgeoning energy efficiency industry. The course is administered by the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.
Gawley thinks his new certification will be especially helpful because the construction that he has seen return has been refurbishment projects in existing buildings – the same kind of buildings that could use electrical and gas efficiency improvements.
The program was initially conceived for recently returning vets whose specialized military training doesn't always lend itself to jobs in the private sector. That has led to an unemployment rate for post-9/11 vets about two points higher than everyone else, said Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance Program Director Aimee Skrzekut.
The program was opened to vets like Gawley who served pre-9/11 because of the turbulent economy.
"Being able to provide the technical training and the job placement assistance and being able to connect them to these job resources in an industry that is growing is a win-win for us," Skrzekut said.
She added that the program is especially timely because the energy efficiency industry has more jobs than there are qualified applicants.
Vets accepted into the program do need to have some related experience. For example, another veteran in Gawley's class had been an aircraft electrician in the military.
"We didn't want to bring vets into the program that were not skilled or poised for success," Skrzekut added.
It begins with classroom instruction, and then vets are paired with a mentor to do projects in actual buildings. Gawley's mentor had him performing energy audits at the DuPage County Complex.
With his new skills, Gawley will be able to make recommendations to building engineers and owners about upgrades to HVAC systems, management systems for lighting and good maintenance practices, among other energy efficiency improvements.
"It's something that's important, whether you're in construction of operations or planning," he said.
The Veterans Building Operator Certification program – the first of its kind in the nation – is administered by the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance in partnership with grants from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and the Illinois Department of Veterans.
The four-month program is not free for non-veterans, though there are $500 grants available to reduce the program cost to $750.