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Stimulus funds finally flowing to weatherization

After getting out of the Army in 2006, Brian Smith kicked around from job to job. He worked as a security guard. He was a retail supervisor. He spent some months at a warehouse. Nothing seemed to last.

Army veteran Brian Smith seals a practice wall. He is in the first class of home-weatherization workers trained in the Philadelphia area under the federal stimulus act. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff)
Army veteran Brian Smith seals a practice wall. He is in the first class of home-weatherization workers trained in the Philadelphia area under the federal stimulus act. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff)Read more

After getting out of the Army in 2006, Brian Smith kicked around from job to job. He worked as a security guard. He was a retail supervisor. He spent some months at a warehouse. Nothing seemed to last.

Now, Smith is among a small group of veterans who make up the first class of home-weatherization workers to be trained in the Philadelphia region under the federal stimulus act.

He hopes that, this time, the work lasts - maybe even becomes a career.

Nine months after passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, states finally are getting rolling on what was billed as one of the most important stimulus programs: the allotment of $5 billion nationally to train workers for the green economy and put them to work upgrading leaky old homes where heat literally goes out the window.

With a big influx of cash in recent weeks, most states are in position to spend half the weatherization funding they expect to get - $253 million in Pennsylvania, $119 million in New Jersey.

Some stimulus-funded weatherization work has begun. Mayor Nutter and other elected officials plan to talk up the program tomorrow by visiting one of the first houses in Philadelphia to be made more energy-efficient.

But training for most of the workers who will do weatherization is only now getting under way.

Each morning for the last week or so, Smith, 25, of Philadelphia's Mount Airy section, has been reporting to a graffiti-marred warehouse in Kensington that a century and a half ago turned out uniforms for Civil War soldiers.

The building on West Clearfield Street, run by the nonprofit Energy Coordinating Agency of Philadelphia Inc., has been designated one of six training centers across the state. Weatherization agencies from Philadelphia, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties will send workers there. Trainees don't have to be veterans.

Smith, rail-thin and just under 6 feet tall, has been unemployed since his last layoff about a year ago.

After graduating from Dobbins Career and Technical High School in 2002, he joined the Army and ended up serving in Afghanistan with the 10th Forward Support Battalion.

"Even though I have a military background," he said, "it's not easy to find a job."

Sounding like a soldier taught to be gung-ho, he said, "I like to receive an opportunity, make the most of it, and then go to the next level."

In work boots and a work uniform, with hard hat and safety glasses, he was standing in a big open area on the second floor of the warehouse. He and a half-dozen other veterans were learning how to build an interior wall - to nail together the studs, to cut and mount the wallboard, to seal it all with caulk.

After lunch, the men headed for a class in construction worker's math - adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions. Two guys in the class had dropped out because of math anxiety.

Back in the 1970s, the federal government instituted a jobs program called CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. But there wasn't much training, and when the program ended, the jobs did, too.

Stimulus-funded weatherization is an expansion of a federal program that also dates to the '70s. Smith hopes that what he is learning will lead to a permanent job when stimulus funding ends in 2011, he said.

The belief that the green economy will grow is the reason the Obama administration picked weatherization for a massive boost in funding.

"It will be a great opportunity - not just today, but forever," Smith said.

He and the other veterans are in a special monthlong course to become weatherization installers. The course for most installers is six days.

The stimulus act ties weatherization workers' pay to a union wage. That varies from county to county.

An installer is entitled to at least $10 per hour in Delaware County, $13.50 in Chester County, $14.18 in Philadelphia and Bucks County, and $17 in Montgomery County. South Jersey rates include $13.50 in Camden and Gloucester Counties and $17.32 in Burlington County.

More highly skilled window installers will earn up to $25 per hour in Philadelphia and Bucks County.

Richard Price, a member of Smith's class, said he had not had a job since he was laid off from information-technology work two years ago.

Price, 49, of the city's Wissinoming section, said he saw two benefits of the training.

He might get a job "that's going to keep me employed for quite a while," he said.

"And I'll get to help people."

A home dweller who earns less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level - about $44,000 annually for a family of four - is eligible to receive weatherization assistance.

But state and local officials say most clients will come from lists they already have.

One is the list of clients served by LIHEAP - the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps needy families pay their natural-gas or heating-oil bills.

The second list ranks homes by the amount of energy they use. Weatherization agencies say they won't work in homes where they can't expect to get a big savings in energy use. This means that if you live in a big, drafty house, you're more likely to qualify than if you occupy a more weather-tight house.

The stimulus act permits agencies to perform up to $6,500 in improvements per house. The work could include sealing leaks, putting in insulation, replacing windows, upgrading the furnace, and even providing a new refrigerator.

Pennsylvania says it expects to weatherize about 29,000 homes, New Jersey about 13,400.

In Philadelphia, two agencies will split the work. The Energy Coordinating Agency has received about $14 million, with which it expects to weatherize 2,500 housing units. The Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. has received $16 million and expects to work on 2,200 homes. Liz Robinson, executive director of ECA, said the two agencies sometimes worked on different types of homes.

Pennsylvania officials have said 940 jobs will be created. New Jersey has said its total will be 400 to 500.

E. Craig Heim, in charge of weatherization for the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, said pressure was on for states to meet half their weatherization goals by next Sept. 30.

"This is a stimulus, so let's hire people, let's certify people, let's get money on the street, let's start producing," he said Friday. "At the same time, I am not relinquishing an inch on quality."

Walter Yakabosky, director of training for ECA, said the pressure was felt at the agency level, too.

"If we don't meet our goals by Sept. 30, we don't get the second half of the stimulus money," Yakabosky said. "So everybody is getting a little crazy. We would have liked to have started training earlier."

Contact Information for Weatherization

For information on home weatherization assistance or training, contact the weatherization agency in your county.


Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.

1234 Market St.

10th Floor

Philadelphia 19107


Energy Coordinating Agency

of Philadelphia Inc.

1924 Arch St.

Philadelphia 19103


Bucks County Opportunity Council

515 S. West End Blvd.

Quakertown, Pa. 18951


Community Action Agency of Delaware County

Toal Building

Second and Orange Streets

Media, Pa. 19063


HDC3 Corp.

(Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon Counties)

439 E. King St.

Lancaster, Pa. 17602


Montgomery County Community Action Development Commission

113 E. Main St.

Norristown, Pa. 19401


New Jersey

Camden County Council on Economic Opportunity

5287 Route 70

Pennsauken, N.J. 08109


Burlington County Community Action Program

454 Columbus Rd.

Burlington, N.J. 08016


Tri-County Community Action Partnership

(Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland Counties)

110 Cohansey St.

Bridgeton, N.J. 08302