Author Archive

June 1, 2012

The Human Investment

Nate Young, Education Coordinator, Brightworksby Nate Young

Education Coordinator

The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment. The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.

– Peter Drucker 1999

No company can succeed without investing in its most important assets. Yet the challenge, as Peter Drucker points out, is recognizing what’s most important. Many modern organizations hold a vast network of “human resources” that are in essence dying on the vine due to a lack of ongoing investment, especially in the area of sustainability training and development. Fortunately, as leading companies are demonstrating, engaging and investing in employees isn’t a charitable effort – it pays dividends of higher company profits and more effective sustainability programs.

Accounting for human resources

To hear Paul Herman of HIP Investor tell it, many companies avoid investing in their employees on a regular basis – possibly due, in part, to a limitation in U.S. accounting standards. You see, employees are not considered an asset, according to the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the standards by which American corporations develop their financial statements. Employees only show up as salary costs (Expenses on the Income Statement) and possibly as pension costs (Liabilities on the Balance Sheet).

The GAAP requirements can be overcome (Infosys, for instance reports their human resource valuation each year), but these structures tend to reinforce management’s 20th Century views of what are “investments or assets” versus “expenses or liabilities.” Like me, you’ve probably heard the phrase “our employees are our greatest asset” more than a few times. Even if we can’t show it properly on financial statements, why don’t we act like we mean it? Clearly, investing in infrastructure is believed to pay benefits, so why don’t we feel the same about our employees?

Our employees are our greatest asset

The people have spoken…via google search.

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March 6, 2012

On Maintaining Professional Credentials and LEED Accreditation

Nate Young, Education Coordinator, BrightworksBy Nate Young, Education Coordinator

Much has been made of the mismatch between the available jobs in the current market and the lack of training among many job seekers (including on this blog). Companies seek and value employees that come trained in very specific ways, and are unwilling to invest in bringing unqualified prospects up to speed. Among the best ways to prove your worth to employers is to gain and maintain pertinent credentials and certifications while honing the skills those credentials require.

In the building professions, LEED accreditation has fast become one of the core qualifications employers seek.

Brightworks’ built environment staff and clients are just now experiencing the first wave of renewals within the credentialing maintenance system the USGBC rolled out in June 2009. Included in the revamped system is a Credential Maintenance Program (CMP), now run by partner organization GBCI. This program requires all LEED Accredited Professionals (APs) to complete continuing education to maintain their credentials on a two-year schedule.

Numerous Brightworks employees took the earliest exams under the new system and have now completed the first round of credential renewal. Our staff has been fielding calls from many clients and partners seeking help with the new system, so I wanted to share some tips and pointers to ease what can be a challenging process.

Don’t procrastinate

Take Notes!

Record keeping like this will get you in trouble.

For starters, depending on how prepared you are, expect to spend several hours completing the process of renewing your credential. Let me stress again – the renewal process is long and involved. It’s likely to last weeks, depending on the types of credits you are submitting for your credential. As an architect recently told me, “This is much more rigorous and confusing than maintaining my architect’s license with the state.” Please don’t wait until the week your credential lapses to begin!

Like cooking dinner or painting a room, things move much more quickly when you are thoroughly prepared. GBCI requires online reporting that asks for many details you probably haven’t been recording, and tracking them down will take time. I have created this tool (click to download) that can help to organize your CE information in the exact format you’ll need to complete “My Credentials” on GBCI’s website.

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December 14, 2011

Developing Your Talent for the Business of the Future

Nate Young Backpacking on Washington's Olympic PenninsulaBy Nate Young, Brightworks Education Coordinator

It goes without saying that conducting business “sustainably” requires a new paradigm of operations. Given that, it should also go without saying that businesses will need a different employee skill set as well. Unfortunately, companies that pursue sustainability are often hesitant to equip their employees with the necessary knowledge and tools to realign their operations.

Gap in Corporate Sustainability Initiatives and Staff TrainingA recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted this disparity. “American companies don’t seem to do training anymore,” it declared. While the U.S. unemployment rate is almost 9 percent, 52 percent of employers reported having difficulty filling positions because of talent shortages, according to Manpower. By offering “just a bit” of employee training, these companies could develop the talent they need.

Instead, in-house training opportunities have all but dried up, the article reported. “Data are hard to come by, but we know that apprenticeship programs have largely disappeared, along with management-training programs. And the amount of training that the average new hire gets in the first year or so could be measured in hours and counted on the fingers of one hand.”

And yet, opportunities abound for professionals to develop the skills that make sense for progressive companies: from ongoing workforce education programs (like we offer at Brightworks) up to a graduate business degree with a sustainability focus.

To get a better idea of the benefits of burnished sustainability skill sets, I chatted with Scott Marshall and Alison Dennis of the Portland State University (PSU) MBA program. Given that PSU’s MBA program was recently ranked by the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes as the best small business school in the world, I figured they understood what skills companies should and would look for in new and existing employees.

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September 10, 2011

What If HR Owned Sustainability?

by Nate Young

Brightworks’ Education Coordinator

If you believe conventional wisdom, Human Resources (HR) doesn’t warrant a seat at the table for discussions about sustainability. Unfortunately, this is one instance where conventional wisdom is misguided.  The HR department not only deserves a seat, it might be the appropriate group to take charge of sustainability programs.

Depending on the firm, sustainability is managed by any one or more different departments. For instance, consumer-facing companies often recognize sustainability as a significant brand builder and so direct sustainability initiatives through the marketing department. Manufacturing companies that have little public interaction often only understand sustainability as regulation. They put legal departments in charge of compliance and provide little or no forward-looking environmental or social engagement.

So Why HR?

There are multiple reasons to assign HR a central role in your firm’s sustainability initiatives. Here are three:

  1. One important benefit of a robust sustainability platform is the attraction it holds for young, motivated, sustainability-minded professionals. (I’ve talked about attracting great employees before on this blog.) If HR isn’t on board with nurturing that attraction, let alone following through on employees’ professional development, they could find themselves at a distinct disadvantage versus their peer firms when the great young talent goes elsewhere.
  2. When companies go through major structural changes, HR is deeply involved in easing employees through the transition. Given the magnitude of behavioral change that many companies must undergo to effectively integrate the triple bottom line into normal business operations, HR must be involved. In an examination of HR’s role in sustainability initiatives, researchers Hitchcock and Willard found that “because of the lack of HR involvement in most sustainability efforts…many organizations are making many unnecessary implementation mistakes.” Giving HR a seat at the table as new sustainability initiatives are discussed and subsequently rolled out can help ensure employees up and down the organization understand and support the new goals.
  3. HR plays an important role in measurement and verification of corporate initiatives. In many cases, HR departments track employees’ performance according to job descriptions or other predetermined metrics. Having sustainability embedded into performance expectations – and then measured – is critical to ensuring the initiatives are successful. Having HR on board with this crucial aspect from the beginning ensures expectations are clearly articulated and effectively measured.

Back to What If…

While it’s clear the HR department can’t control every sustainability initiative, they should at least be at the table for the discussion. Elaine Lees, Partner and Advisor at Generator Group, an HR consulting firm, summed it up nicely:

Sustainability will be successful in a firm only once it is integrated throughout the life-cycle of every employee; before they are hired, sustainability makes the firm attractive, sustainability is present in the employee orientation process, written into their job description, and followed through in their development plans. These are all aspects of business controlled by HR and they should rightly have a say in their rollout!

Is this HR's role in your sustainability initiatives?

To what extent do you involve HR personnel in the process of “greening” your firm? While I won’t go so far as to guarantee success, I am confident that growing HR’s role gives new sustainability initiatives a better chance at success. And success, after all, is what we are after.

June 15, 2011

Learn, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Nate backpacking on Washington's Olympic Penninsulaby Nate Young

Brightworks Education Coordinator

A number of years ago, researchers dug into the efficacy of the 50-year-old “Smokey the Bear” campaign to prevent forest fires. They found that a picture of Smokey produced a 98% aided recall of the campaign. Digging deeper though, they found only a 7% unaided recall and an even lower rate of understanding of what actions actually reduced forest fires. A critical but missing piece of the campaign was the education behind the image: What steps should campers and other forest users take to prevent forest fires?[i]

Smokey the Bear

But how, Smokey? What do I actually do?

Is sustainability your Smokey the Bear? Do your employees recognize the importance of sustainability, without understanding what the term means, let alone their role in driving the firm toward triple bottom line success?

In addition to managing the competitive pressure to increase sustainable practices, I’ve pointed out before that many firms also recognize the important role workforce training plays in engaging and retaining high-quality, motivated employees. As awareness of sustainability grows, employees increasingly seek out employers that offer and encourage professional growth generally and in sustainability specifically. According to a recent Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) study, fully 67% of firms interested in sustainability are or will be providing on-the-job training in sustainability.[ii]

I’ll present three reasons you should join these firms in offering a workforce education program on sustainability:

  • save money
  • make your firm more nimble and innovative
  • improve your employees’ level of engagement.

Then, I’ll offer three crucial tips to ensure the efforts you undertake are worthwhile:

  • engage all levels of the enterprise
  • offer required “courses” but also allow employees to direct some of their own learning
  • tie learning objectives to business objectives and incentives

Why Offer Sustainability Education?

Cost Savings: Who can argue with an opportunity to save money? By neglecting to offer your employees the knowledge they need to make effective, cost-saving decisions, you may be leaving money on the table. Most decisions that affect the bottom line are made at the top. However, the daily actions of line-level workers can result in costs rising or falling.

One energy-saving initiative at Intel to raise the thermostat by one degree led to energy savings estimated at more than $400,000 in just one year. Piloted by employees, this effort cost the company nothing and yet led to substantial savings. With oversight from management, the knowledgeable workforce was able to recognize a potential for savings, test out their hypothesis to ensure there were no negative consequences and institute the plan.[iii]

Nimble, Innovative Workforce: Studies have consistently shown a strong correlation between companies that attend to sustainability and those with superior financial returns. One such study showed companies focused on leadership development and adaptive culture grew four times faster and had seven times higher job creation.[iv]

Setting goals, informing your workforce and providing the necessary training can provide a distinct competitive advantage. As social and environmental sustainability increasingly become a part of consumer expectations, the modern workforce must know how to adapt to changing expectations proactively rather than reactively.

Employee Engagement and Retention: SHRM has estimated the hiring process for a given position costs 70-200% of that employee’s annual salary. One of the most important and effective ways to retain a high-quality workforce and avoid employee replacement costs is to offer ongoing workforce training.

I heard a sustainability executive recently identify employee engagement and retention as one of four compelling reasons her firm continued to pursue sustainability strategies and provide ongoing sustainability training. The company’s job applicants consistently ask: “What is your stance – and how do you engage your employees – on sustainability?” Having a proactive sustainability plan made the firm an attractive place to work for their recruits, and ongoing training kept them motivated and engaged.

How to Ensure ROI on Sustainability Training

As with any new business initiative, sustainability training requires certain steps to ensure a return on investment. There are three critical ways to transform the “fuzzy” benefits of sustainability training into improved business performance:

Engage All Levels of the Workforce: Sustainability initiatives often employ the “green team” model driven by motivated employees with no support from management. Alternately, management may issue a directive to incorporate sustainability, with no explanation or attempt to engage employees.. The most effective initiatives, however, involve every level of the organization.

Ground-level support can truly drive change, as in the Intel example above. However, having management on board with training and other efforts adds to employee motivation, while also providing the high-level leadership needed to truly make sustainability efforts successful.

Brenda Wisniewski, Chief Learning Officer of CoreNet Global, said:

“Where I’ve seen this work best is when training and learning is a priority — and it’s always because the CEO recognizes (and vocalizes) his or her point of view that the better trained the company’s people are, the more they understand the business strategy and where they fit into it, and the better they can deliver on it.”[v]

Offer Flexibility in Training Options:  Part of remaining an adaptive, flexible organization is allowing your employees training options. This enables individuals to pursue aspects of sustainability that are important to them, while also allowing them to bring different knowledge and skills sets back to the workplace.

As discussed above, an organization that adapts to changing conditions is much more likely to be successful. A workforce that is educated on current sustainability trends brings proactive growth to the company when it is critical rather than in response to your competition’s movements.

Tie Training to Business Objectives and Incentives: It should go without saying, but employees tend to be substantially more effective at a task when their compensation and/or bonus are tied to its completion. Stonyfield tied employees’ bonuses to a companywide mandate to reduce energy consumption. Through continued education on methods for energy savings, and with incentives to match, the company surpassed their goal with a 22% reduction in energy consumed in 2008.[vi]

Healthcare giant Baxter developed a separate Environmental Financial Statement (EFS) that has been issued since 1993. The EFS showed that savings from employee-driven sustainability initiatives, tied to bottom-line goals, led to $91.9 million in income, savings and cost avoidance from 2002-2008.[vii]

Now is the Time

Is your company where it needs to be with regards to sustainability? And more importantly, will you continue to be on the front lines based on the level of training your workforce is receiving? Or are you opening the door to your competition by leaving your employees to fend for themselves? Now is the time to offer sustainability training to drive your firm into the emerging green economy – your competition isn’t waiting, and neither should you.

Click to view references

March 10, 2011

The More You Know…

Better Educated = Better World

Nate backpacking on Washington's Olympic Penninsulaby Nate Young

Brightworks Education Coordinator

I’ve always been impressed with the impact knowledge can have on an individual. My driving habits were forever changed when I learned automakers and the EPA advise that there is no mechanical reason to idle a car longer than 30 seconds. If all US drivers changed their behavior accordingly, this tidbit of knowledge could save as much as 1.8 billion gallons of gasoline. The GHG impact would be comparable to removing more than three million cars from the road annually.1

Similarly, professional, adult or continuing education helps the educated make better decisions. As Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “Benefiting society as a whole, educated individuals are more likely to participate in civic affairs, volunteer their time to charities, and subscribe to personal values…that are increasingly crucial for the healthy functioning of our diverse society.”2 Education leads to positive changes within our personal and professional practice and, in turn, benefits an entire ecosystem, raising all boats.

Sustainable Careers Require Constant Evolution

The value of continuing education is not lost on the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). In June 2009, the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) revamped the credentialing process. Individuals accredited by the GBCI are now required to earn a number of continuing education credits every two years. (Check out our brief guide to the Credential Maintenance Program for those Legacy LEED APs without specialty who are interested in the prescriptive path to a LEED specialty.)

Further, the first ballot version of the 2012 LEED rating systems states that Legacy LEED APs will not qualify for “LEED AP credits” as they have in the past. This is meant to ensure the credit is awarded only for green building professionals that are up to date on industry best practices. (For more information, see this article on LEEDUser.)

We agree green building education is not a static destination, but a journey. Brightworks recently launched a series of continuing ed. workshops that aim to fulfill the specific requirements of the prescriptive path to a specialty (though our content aims to move beyond the LEED fundamentals by bringing innovative and practical courses to the industry).

To stand still professionally is to be moving backwards, particularly in today’s job market. Participating in workshops and trainings is one sure way to stay on top of changes in green building. It also shows current and future employers you’re making an ongoing investment in your career and industry.

Bored at Work? Get Inspired!

The inspirational value of ongoing education should not be ignored either. Professionals are continually pushing the boundaries of green building. Additional standards, such as Passive House and the Living Building Challenge, raise the bar for rating systems and set a new benchmark for green buildings that strive for regenerative design. New initiatives such as STARS quantify for the first time better practices for new transportation projects. And frameworks such as biomimicry support the design and implementation of green building strategies, often changing the way we think about design.

One recent participant of a biomimicry workshop said, “The way you look at nature after taking this class is forever changed.” Not only did she benefit professionally from a framework that looks to nature for inspiration in solving design challenges – significant in itself; she also developed a new appreciation for the natural world that is a strong driver for our work!

The Multiplier Effect of Education

Finally, I’m passionate about the combination of sustainability and education because of the potential multiplier effect. As Scott alluded to earlier this week, changed individuals can create “infinite ripples of change.” Think of the power that all those ripples taken together can have!

As we individually learn more about sustainability, our knowledge filters out to the network of individuals around us. Just one A/E professional knowledgeable about sustainability influences an entire network, driving change on projects that lead to even greater triple-bottom-line benefits. In the end, that is Brightworks’ and my mission: “to foster the emergence of a sustainable, equitable society.”

1    Carrico, A. R., Padgett, P., Vandenbergh, M. P., Gilligan, J. & Wallston, K. A. (2009). Costly myths: An analysis of idling beliefs and behavior in personal motor vehicles. Energy Policy, 37, 2881-2888.

2    Bernanke, B. S. (2007). Speech to the US Chamber Education and Workforce Summit, Washington, D.C. September 24, 2007. Retrieved from http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/speech/bernanke20070924a.htm

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