Gleniss V. Brown Wade, program manager for the DCSEU's workforce development program, speaks to the class during a training session on March 15. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
Gleniss V. Brown Wade, program manager for the DCSEU's workforce development program, speaks to the class during a training session on March 15. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

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Rolanda “Vicky” Washington, 51, worked at the publishing company ProQuest for 30 years as a facilities manager. But when another company bought it in 2021, the facilities department was dissolved.

During the two-hour "Green Buildings 101" class, the 11 externs received packets to follow along with the 100-plus slides. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)
During the two-hour “Green Buildings 101” class, the 11 externs received packets to follow along with the 100-plus slides. (Robert R. Roberts/The Washington Informer)

“That forced me to look for a different career,” Washington, a Ward 5 resident, said. “I hadn’t interviewed in years — everything had changed.”

Jack Sullivan, 25, is a relatively recent D.C. transplant. He graduated from Ohio University in 2020 with a degree in entrepreneurship and came to the District to get involved in the solar energy industry. 

On paper, Sullivan and Washington might not seem to have a ton in common. But for the last few months, the two have shared a title: extern. They’re both part of the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility’s (DCSEU) workforce development program, which places District residents in green energy jobs across the city for on-the-job training. 

Each cohort lasts about five months, during which time participants work at one of DCSEU’s sustainability-focused partner organizations four days a week. On Wednesdays, externs come to the DCSEU building for training, which can include everything from a “Green Buildings 101” presentation to a course on resume writing and interview skills. 

Importantly, the DCSEU pays externs throughout the program — at least $20 an hour, 40 hours a week. 

“We offer a living wage — not a minimum wage,” said Gleniss V. Brown Wade, who has led the program for more than seven years. “People cannot sustain themselves with a stipend. People have to eat, they have to live.”

The types of externship positions available vary widely and the partner organizations including large and small businesses, government agencies and universities. Washington works as an administrative assistant at Greenscape Energy, a D.C.-based company that provides solutions to improve energy efficiency. Sullivan, who had spent some time in the industry before joining the program, works at WDC Solar selling, designing and troubleshooting solar installations. 

“It’s super exciting to be a part of a successful model that is outward-bound,” Sullivan said of WDC Solar. “We’re starting up in Savanna right now. ”

The green industry is growing rapidly, both locally and across the country. Jobs in the renewable energy and environment sectors grew by 237% across the U.S. between 2017 and 2022, according to LinkedIn’s 2022 Global Green Skills Report. More than 1,800 District residents had jobs in solar or wind energy generation in 2021, while 11,500 worked in energy efficiency, according to Department of Energy data

But not everyone has had equal access to that job growth. Black people made up less than 10% of the District’s clean energy workforce in 2020, according to a study published by environmental business group E2. That’s despite D.C.’s population being more than 40% Black. 

By providing fully paid training, the DCSEU workforce development program lowers the barriers to entry that prevent many people from getting started in the green sector. Brown Wade attends job fairs and connects with community-based organizations to identify qualified candidates from across all eight wards. 

Since 2015, more than 150 District residents have graduated from the program. Over 85% of those externs go on to full-time positions after graduating, and Brown Wade said most stay in the sustainability sector. 

“I knew nothing about the green space when I came into the workforce development program,” said 63-year-old Yolanda Hayden. She joined the program in 2019, and went on stay at her externship company, WDC Solar, for two years. She left that job early last year to take on a newly created Training Coordinator position — right back at DCSEU. 

In that role, Hayden helps connect people inside and outside of the externship program with training opportunities in green energy. Among the externs, the DCSEU said that between 50 and 75% of each cohort end up taking and passing the national certification exams that officially qualify them for tasks like energy management and solar panel installation. 

“You’re more marketable than ever before because you’ve got energy efficiency under your belt, you’ve got sustainability on your belt, you’re taking the LEED [Green Associates Exam],” Brown Wade said. “They’ve taken so many courses — you put that stuff on your resume, who’s not going to call you back for the interview?”

That training doesn’t just benefit the participant: it’s a boon for the organization they’re placed at, too. Nationally, clean energy companies are actually facing a labor shortage, The Washington Post reported earlier this month. Partnering with the externship program has helped some green businesses in the District find qualified talent and get them trained — all on the DCSEU’s dime. 

“The DCSEU workforce program has helped us to scale our business,” said Teria Drayton, co-owner and business manager at Greenscape Energy. “This allows small businesses like us to grow.”

Greenscape has partnered with the DCSEU workforce development program since it began in 2015. The company, which currently has 19 employees, has hired more than 80% of the externs it’s worked with, Drayton said. 

Still, Brown Wade said the program sometimes struggles to find partners.

“I’ve wanted to serve more people, this cohort — we don’t have enough mentors who are willing to give up their time to train them,” Brown Wade said. “It’s not easy to have someone in your office for five months, and they’ve got to shadow you. So they’ve really got to make the commitment.”

During each five-month period, the program typically has between 15 and 25 externs; this year’s cohort has 17. 

Another constraint on the size of each cohort is the budget, which is dictated by the organization’s five-year contracts with the Department of Energy and the Environment. One estimate cited in a 2022 case study on DCSEU’s program estimated that it costs about $38,000 to recruit, train, place and mentor each graduate.

But Brown Wade said that making sure participants have genuinely competitive wages for the positions they take on is more important than adding more externs to each cohort, because it means that more participants stay on and make it to graduation. The program doesn’t measure its success by the number of externs or initial placements — Brown Wade is focused on how many of her students stay in full-time positions. 

“We just don’t want them to have a place — we want them to have a career,” she said. “This program is for people who are looking for green careers.”

Washington and Sullivan will graduate on May 17. The next cohort will start just a few days later. 

After having shifted careers, Washington said she hopes to stay on at Greenscape Energy, or potentially find a place at DCSEU in the long term. 

By March 15, Sullivan already knew what he would be up to after graduation.

“Actually, they offered me a [full-time] job yesterday,” he said that day. “So yeah, I’m super excited.”

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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