Pondering work credentials in a green economy

Mike Virelli (left), of D.A. Virelli Roofing , employs David Dennis, who has Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification.
Mike Virelli (left), of D.A. Virelli Roofing , employs David Dennis, who has Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification. (JANE M. VON BERGEN / Staff)
Posted: April 29, 2011

Short and skinny, David Dennis doesn't look like the kind of beefy guy you might find on a construction site, but he's got something else that makes him marketable - a Building Performance Institute (BPI) certification as a building analyst.

With Dennis and others like him on a crew, his boss, Mike Virelli, now has the credentials to land government contracting jobs in energy audits and weatherization.

"It opens up doors for me," said Virelli, of D.A. Virelli Roofing in Philadelphia.

For Dennis and Virelli, the BPI credential is key. In this time-crunched, litigation-leery world, hiring managers, businesses, and consumers increasingly rely on credentials to buttress their own independent judgments.

A BPI credential is not a college degree, but there are similarities.

Consider the college degree. It's simple. Employers and students both understand its worth, and there are credentialing associations to make sure the college's curriculum, faculty, and facilities are up to snuff.

Whether it's BPI or Ph.D., Part One is acquiring the credential. Part Two is making sure the credential accumulates enough heft in the marketplace for it to be valued. Part Three? Credentialing the credentialer, guaranteeing that whatever institution is awarding the credential is qualified to do so.

All those elements are in place in the college system but just beginning to coalesce in the green economy.

That's why Virelli and Dennis and a host of building contractors, educators, workforce trainers, and government officials gathered April 21 for a conference at the John S. and James L. Knight Green Jobs Training Center run by Philadelphia's Energy Coordinating Agency.

The conference title? "Credentials Matter."

Among the speakers was Benjamin Goldstein, project lead for the Department of Energy's programs in training specifications. He drew some laughs when he joked about the alternative: "Ben Goldstein's Green Collar Certification," available at "my backyard garage-training program."

Out of economic necessity, Goldstein said, federal stimulus money entered the green market before an infrastructure of training and credentialing was put in place. It's been catch-up ever since.

Joining Goldstein was Larry Zarker, chief executive officer of the Building Performance Institute, with its credentialing programs for weatherization installers, crew chiefs, and building analysts who conduct home energy audits.

"We are trying to raise the bar with the industry, to set it at a level that allows [companies] to differentiate themselves from fly-by-nights in their pickup trucks," Zarker said.

That kind of market recognition is easier said than done, but the BPI credentials are getting a boost from a major market maker, the public sector, and its quasi-public cousins, public utilities.

"Twenty months ago, nobody that worked in this industry needed credentials," said Walter Yakabosky, director of training at the Energy Coordinating Agency.

Now, he said, Pennsylvania is requiring people who do residential energy audits to be BPI-certified. PGW, the city's gas utility, is starting its own program. Installers, crew leaders, and managers all need BPI certifications.

Also speaking at the conference was Patricia Fox, director of the Institute for Sustainable Power Quality's credentialing programs. ISPQ certifies renewable-energy training schools after determining that their facilities, curriculums, and faculties meet high training standards.

"Lots of people are offering green-job training," Fox said. "But how do [students] know if they are any good? It leaves the student very confused."

For Dennis, BPI certification helped him land a stable job. Before, he picked up odds and ends that never paid more than $9 an hour. Now, he earns $15.20 an hour.

"I decided to go back to school so I could have a career instead of a job," he said.

And if BPI continues to build strength in the marketplace, Dennis' credential will be portable, moving with him if he moves to a new city.

"A credential means someone else says you know what you are doing," said Sue Kaiden, a career consultant in Media. "Everyone is nervous. They don't want to hire the wrong person."

Virelli said he was glad he hired Dennis: "He's a smart kid, very reliable."

When it comes to hiring, Virelli said he needed a mix of workers with years of practical day-to-day experience and people like Dennis, who has less experience but the new knowledge and credentials to help Virelli get contracts.

Whom will Virelli choose?

"I'm going to hire whoever makes my company the most money."

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergenat 215-854-2769 or jvonbergen@phillynews.com.

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