It’s no secret that energy efficiency investments create jobs. We have seen this firsthand with our Energy Savers program as our partner contractors have added trucks and additional crews to meet rising demand for energy improvements. A study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy ( ACEEE) confirmed that money invested in efficiency projects is far more effective at creating jobs than investments in energy generation and distribution, or in the economy as a whole. Moreover, the types of jobs energy efficiency work creates have higher wages for low-credentialed employees ($4,900 above the national median) and we are particularly proud to help low-income job seekers to whom opportunities are so often denied. To maximize the impact of energy efficiency investments CNT Energy partners across sectors to provide comprehensive contractor training and support systems for our small business partners.

The Energy Savers program works with building owners to identify energy savings opportunities and coordinate all the key players in the process. This “one stop shop” approach makes the process easy, and our vetted group of contractors benefits from our pipeline of motivated building owners – who can keep their rental housing affordable thanks to reduced operating costs from energy savings. Since 2007, the program has retrofitted more than 10,000 housing units, resulting in $37 million of energy efficiency work for contractors and creating more than 400 jobs. In 2013, we expect to complete $20 million worth of retrofits and create 235 additional jobs. But even with positive market forces, a new contractor faces huge challenges in starting and growing their business. Most contractors can provide quality work at a reasonable price, but growing their business requires marketing skills, work flow processing and project management, competitively bidding for projects, an understanding of available loans and rebates – and the list goes on. Most contractors simply don’t do all these things well, which is the same reason so many small businesses fail. We believe that basic business support for contractors will increase their success and accelerate the benefits of job creation and energy savings.

To meet this need, CNT Energy created a one-stop shop for contractors which guides them through every step of the process, following the best practices we learned in serving Energy Savers customers. This includes easy-to-follow documentation that outlines the steps and expectations of a retrofit process, a set of simple and professional customer-facing documents (such as assessment reports and bid paperwork), and “just call us” 9a-5p live support from dedicated staff members to minimize mistakes and wasted time. We provide qualified leads and selling opportunities for contractors at local events. Our online forms allow us to monitor contractor work in real-time, while our call center can field customer complaints and intervene to provide assistance when needed. All of this ensures a high quality product and reduces their overall workload. Lastly, we know that the cost of retrofits is a common barrier, so we’ve partnered with Community Investment Corporation to create unbeatable loan offers for building owners, and we have organized all other rebate programs into a single website. By partnering with capital providers to make retrofits more affordable, we ensure that a steady pipeline of retrofit work bolsters the growth of these small contractors.

As our contractor network has grown from 25 to more than 100 small businesses, we’ve been developing our contractor support system iteratively, revising forms, guidelines and process steps as the program evolves. But these revisions, though time-consuming, were an unexpected source of collaboration, because we included our contractors in the process. They were flattered that we cared enough to solicit their input and it illustrated our commitment to partnership.

We also learned that even the most refined process can’t accommodate every need—every contractor has different strengths and weaknesses. This is why we have a candid conversation with each partner contractor to assess their needs. For example, a high-performing contractor was getting complaints about being too expensive. After looking at the data and speaking with the contractor, we realized it was only their proposals for homes with cathedral ceilings that were abnormally costly. So we connected this contractor with another contractor who knew how to provide affordable insulation solutions for cathedral ceilings. When we realized other partners might use this knowledge, CNT Energy held an “Insulating hard-to-access areas for single-family residences” event that drew 30 contractors. Interactions like these improve the overall value and efficacy of the energy efficiency industry. More importantly, it sets a standard for cross-sector collaboration and ongoing improvement, which goes beyond energy efficiency and empowers communities to solve problems in new and innovative ways.

Asking good questions, listening well, making accommodations, and building trust seem simple enough, but it’s not something most program administrators do. This approach, and the structure and resources we provide, will help more small businesses succeed, reduce energy use, and keep rents affordable for lower income households. Even though we derive no direct benefit from helping our contractors improve, we recognize they are crucial partners, so investing in their development is also an investment in our program and our community.

Anne Evens is CEO of CNT Energy