Q & A with April Ambrose: January 2024

April Ambrose

April Ambrose, Director,
Energy & Environment,
Arkansas Apprenticeship Alliance

THE NEW YEAR always brings new challenges and new opportunities. As ACDS moves into fields beyond IT, we wanted to shine this month’s spotlight on April Ambrose, director of our first non-IT-specific industry, Energy & Environment. A longtime advocate for green energy and environmental-friendly building, April discusses her values, her career so far, and her goals as part of this exciting new “Arkansas Apprenticeship Alliance” with ACDS and other partners. 

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Reading about your childhood, I was struck by how it seemed to instill the values that you’ve made a career of. 

Absolutely. My parents met on a commune in Arkansas, but by the time I came along, most of them had sort of paired up and had their own property. My family had 40 acres in the Ozarks.

The road to our place was an old logging road. You’d go to Clinton and go west on Highway 16 to Alread, then go south on dirt roads 20 miles and then another mile down our “driveway,” as it were. If you look on the map, the closest named place is called Lost Corner.

My two younger siblings and I were initially homeschooled for a few years, and then we ended up going to the Alread School District, which was about an hour and a half bus ride every morning. We’d walk the mile to and from where the school bus picked us up and let us off.

Some of the components of our life that later made me interested in educating about it were the things related to functionality. We had composting toilets that rotated, and after two years would be fertilizer for our garden. We collected rainwater from the roof into a gutter system down into a cistern, and we didn’t have electricity for the first number of years. We used CB radios to communicate with neighbors until we got a party line.

On our property we had a two-acre organic garden, storage/storm cellar, chickens, orchard, stocked pond, sawmill, and wood shop. The wood shop started with my dad making a swing for my mom for her birthday, and then somebody else said, “I want one of those.” That’s how our crafts business got started. We traveled to craft shows growing up, and the school district actually considered us migrant labor because we traveled so much.

Finally, my parents got tired of traveling, so we moved to Clinton and opened a health food store. During that time, my mom was appalled that we couldn’t recycle, so she worked with some other women and got a recycling center started for our county and others. From that time on, a lot of what I’ve done is to describe to people how I grew up, and what a sharp contrast it was to their lives; they had no idea where their water came from, or their energy, or their food, et cetera. And I felt like helping them see those things became my job.

There are so many different directions you could’ve gone in spreading this message—writing books, teaching. How did you decide on the path you’re on?

It wasn’t until I was in college at Hendrix that a professor said, “Have you thought about environmental education as a career?” And that’s when I designed my own major there with a teaching certificate. But I quickly realized that the public school system was not going to be the way that I would educate about the environment and sustainability.

I really love getting to change people’s minds about things, to educate them to make a different decision than they would otherwise have made. And that’s what got me into consulting. I got into politics first, because I thought that was the way you instilled change. My first policy job was working for what’s now the Pew Charitable Trust. My job was to try to convince Senators Blanche Lincoln and David Pryor to vote for a climate cap and trade bill. After two years of my grassroots work, Lincoln agreed that climate change was happening, but not that it was human caused. Pryor refused to acknowledge that it was even happening. After working so hard for so long, I decided that maybe there were other areas that could progress faster.

There’s a lot to cover in your entire career, but I want to get to the major themes. I’m wondering if that’s best viewed through your years at Entegrity?

That’s been the majority of my work history, for sure. So when I started there, we were using the LEED rating system, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED is a 100-point green building rating system that’s broken up into different categories. Within those categories are credits that you pursue, and each credit is worth differing amounts of points. You do what makes sense for your project and then add up the points and you get a Certified Silver, Gold, or Platinum level certification that verifies your green building.

The categories that it addresses are things like energy, water, materials, waste, indoor air quality, the occupant experience, and how the building interacts with its community—both the land it sits on as well as its connectivity to community resources, and how the process of integrating the team members works.

Chris Ladner started Entegrity in 2007 because he was selling Trane equipment and realized that he was selling much larger equipment for buildings than he needed to because no one was focused on energy efficiency. As you look around the conference table at the architect and the engineer and even the owner, it was nobody’s job to think about the building holistically. In other words, it was one guy’s job to think about finances, and another guy’s job to think about the electrical, and the architect’s job to design the layout. Nobody ever talked about the occupant experience, how it would be managed, and how it would perform as a whole.

So using the LEED rating system gave us a framework not only to define whether a building was “green,” but also to define how these separate entities should interact during the design, construction, and operation of the building. My first five years or so at Entegrity were spent developing that sustainability department of the company. I was actively learning it, training people in it, advising the national U.S. Green Building Council on how LEED could change, and using their rating system on projects. I used to say, “I’m building the car while I’m driving it, while I’m teaching somebody else to drive it, and also changing the oil!” But I loved that. It gave me project management skills. It was really my first corporate America job, even though we were a small company.

I did that for six years, then they allowed me to move into sales. “Start a new office for us in Memphis,” they essentially said, so I got more into business development, contract writing, contract negotiation, market sector strategy, and so on. Again, it’s something I loved doing—selling the LEED concept to people who hadn’t considered it previously or didn’t see its value—and learning how to talk about the value in terms of their needs.

I would sit down in the first meeting and say, “What are we designing? What are the goals of this project? Is the owner’s goal to market that they are now green? Is the owner’s goal to save money on their utility bills? Is the owner’s goal to be the innovative first in this industry, to do something unique?” Then we would measure everything in that checklist against their goals and guide the design team, the construction team, and the building operation team on how to do that as efficiently as possible.

Did you like sales? I would’ve thought that might’ve taken you away from what you really love.

I get bored easily. Once I get good at something, I want to move on. So I was good at the consulting operations part and was ready for a new challenge, and sales gave me that. But I’m not “salesy.” I never looked ahead of time at what my commission would be on any project. Instead, I got excited about the impact that project would make, or what my influence was able to change as a part of the project. The way I did sales was through technical education, ultimately. I did so many lunch-and-learns.

Being a LEED Fellow is like being an Architect Fellow. It’s a peer reviewed lifetime achievement thing. My application to become a LEED Fellow was based on the fact that in just under 10 years, I had delivered more than 500 presentations. I just did a lot of education. And that is still the lens through which I see the world. Even in this job now, I do presentations. That’s how I raise awareness. And often the number one response is, “I can see you love what you do. You are extremely passionate, but you’re also very inspirational.”

And that’s always my goal, to educate them to understand how they can make change—but to educate based on their values and what matters to them. I think that’s a difference between me and what I call “environmentalists of old,” the ones still knocking their head against the brick wall and saying, “Do it for all the right reasons or I don’t want you to do it at all.” And I’m saying, “I don’t care why you do it. Just do it. Let me find the words that fit for you as long as you do it.”

I can imagine the owners of these buildings saying, “Oh no, we can’t afford that. The bottom line will not allow it….” How do you get them to come around?

The LEED rating system is based on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit; any decision made under that rating system ought to meet an organization’s goal for those three things. It must meet the needs of the people in it. It mustn’t negatively affect the people and environment outside of it. And it must make good economic sense in the short and/or long term.

Now, good triple-bottom-line sense doesn’t always mean fewer dollars, but it should mean more value. The most expensive solar to build is canopy solar over a parking lot, but if you see value in providing an amenity to your staff who live in Arizona or Arkansas where it’s hot all the time, then that expense makes good economic sense—because it encompasses the people aspect, as well as the environmental aspect.

It all depends on how they value things. I did a lot of work for large national Fortune 100 companies. Most have two different departments, design and construction and operations and maintenance. So a decision that design and construction makes just wants it to be the cheapest possible to stay within their department budget. But if you get them to combine the two department budgets, then some decisions that might cost a little more upfront on this side save a whole lot more on the other side long-term. In that way, we can get them to make more environmentally friendly decisions because they’re actually more cost-effective for them.

So they’re still watching the bottom line?

Absolutely, they can still watch the bottom line, even while their hundreds of facilities earn 100-percent LEED certifications.

Very impressive. So moving to what you’re doing now, how did your work with Arkansas Advanced Energy Foundation come about?

For a long time, I was the only female at Entegrity, and very often the only female in most meetings that I was having. I really never thought that much about the women that would come behind me and how we should grow the company to be equitable. I just kept plugging ahead: After I was good at project management, I moved into sales, and then after I got good at sales and started looking for my next thing, I got into building performance visualization tools for a while. And then I got into diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

I started a DEI group within the company, and one of our first goals was to increase diversity among our staff. It wasn’t just focused on women, but that was my personal story. So this group had been operational for about a year, and COVID was going on, and we were getting some of our folks poached by coast companies, paying them coast prices while they continued to live in Arkansas. We just couldn’t compete financially. We realized it was unlikely that we would pull anybody from the coast to Arkansas, and that’s when we decided we had to home-grow a more diverse talent base.

I worked with Lauren Waldrip of the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, our member-based local trade organization, to host a call with all the green entities I could think of across the state. Her membership had stated that workforce concerns were the main bottleneck to their continued growth. So we asked, “What does the green jobs pipeline look like in Arkansas? And where should Entegrity and other companies insert ourselves to enhance that so that we can benefit from it?” It turned out there was no contiguous pipeline.

One of the people on that call was Lonnie Emard of ACDS. And Lonnie said, “I really feel like the apprenticeship model is what you’ve been looking for and didn’t know it.”

As these conversations were going on, Lauren started advocating on behalf of the industry to the Office of Skills Development (OSD) and applied for a grant of $2 million, over four years, for us to address this issue. When she got the grant, she came to me and said, “April, I’m the dog that caught the car. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know how to manage this. Would you possibly consider coming over to manage this work?”

At the time, I was good at my business development role and ready to take on my next challenge, though it was difficult to leave Entegrity after 15 years!

So I started with Lauren in January 2023, a year ago, knowing the industry I’d be serving very well. I told her and Lonnie and Cody Waits at OSD, “Fifty apprentices? I’ll have that by February.” And I just recently—in November—got my first apprentices. Live and learn.

And now you’re working with ACDS. Tell me about that and how you view this new role.

About the time we got the grant funding for this new energy sector, several things were happening at once. Lonnie was talking to other industries, and advanced manufacturing needed similar support. Also, new governor Sarah Sanders was pushing OSD, along with other state departments, to reduce their funding and to collaborate better. For example, even though the advanced energy sector had this funding, I didn’t have all of the support pieces that ACDS has—project managers and talent recruiters and grant writers, et cetera. Very quickly we realized that ACDS ought to be the nonprofit that manages emerging industry apprenticeships for multiple sectors. They’ll use their end-to-end Registered Apprenticeship model and allow directors from those industries—people with the industry knowledge and industry contacts—to facilitate that. That’s when the Arkansas Apprenticeship Alliance, a collaboration with the Arkansas Advanced Energy Association, was born. So far, two of us from emerging industries are working with ACDS through this Alliance— I’m Director of Energy & Environment, and David Mason is Director for Advanced Manufacturing, even while ACDS continues to expand IT offerings.

At first, my title was supposed to be Director of Advanced Energy, but it was really hard for me to focus only on energy when I could see that the challenge was wider than that. Expansion didn’t make sense when I was just working with Lauren and her group, but when I came to the Arkansas Apprenticeship Alliance, I wanted to be able to open it up to work on land use and water and other sustainability topics. So we changed my title to reflect my focus.

How are you going about this work?

Initially through exposure. I’m simultaneously working with schools and workforce boards to make sure they’re trained to talk to people about careers that exist in this industry. We’re an emerging industry that’s coalescing as we speak. For example, the solar industry finally decided, just a couple months ago, on what accreditations to use moving forward. There were many of them being used before that.

I also have to work with the training institutions to figure out how to integrate training into the apprenticeships; the majority of our training is online through national organizations right now. I’d like to bring that home through Arkansas institutions, where it belongs. We also need to provide professional development for those who never got any training—only on the job, so to speak; now they need to align themselves better with how things are changing in the market.

And not every role within the industry is apprenticeable, because a lot of the training that folks need to be a part of this industry is really upskilling traditional trades. Take Solar Installer, for example—the Department of Labor, which administers Registered Apprenticeships, doesn’t recognize that as an occupation in and of itself. They see it as a part of electrician, construction, et cetera. So I’ve had to work with the traditional trades to integrate the necessary training and align it with credentials and licensure.

That’s one of my challenges. But the second challenge is just that, I don’t know…. This is a great use of my talents right now. I told Lauren, “Look, I’ll work for it for a year. I’ll get things set up to where I can just hand it off to the next person and they can run it.” Well, it’s taken longer than a year to get that going.

But I have other passions. One of the other ideas I have is to create some type of hyper-local business certification that rewards businesses for taking action like recycling, for example. It’s one thing for LEED or somebody on high to say, “Your business should recycle.” And then the business, especially a small business, says, “Where, how, what? What’s available to me? How do I communicate it? Once I do it, will I be recognized for that? Will people want to spend more money with me because they know that I’m green?”

The way LEED has transformed the marketplace is by simply asking the right questions. Low VOC paints—that stands for Volatile Organic Compounds, which release stinky gases into the environment—didn’t exist before LEED started asking for them. I’d call a company and say, “I need to know your pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled content of your product.” At first, nobody knew what we were talking about, but in time, just asking those questions has made it common practice. I feel like the same thing is needed for the way we operate our businesses, so that consumers can learn who they want to buy from on environment and on social issues and governance and whatnot.

What is your personal definition of success in your work?

The things that inspire and energize and keep me engaged with this work are when I talk to a company that recognizes that they have a need but they don’t know how to solve it, and I’m able to bring the tools to help them solve it in a way they’ve not previously considered—but also in a way that benefits the greater whole. That’s one. The other is in helping individuals open their eyes to the wide world that is this industry and to see that it’s possible to live a life where you are doing well by doing good.

I believe my role is, in a lot of ways, inspiration—but inspiration combined with actionable solutions. The times I come home and tell my husband about something that was amazing that day…. Take today in particular, I’ve had probably eight conference calls today. I’ve got another one after this. And at the end of four of them, they were like, “You have given me so much great information. This was everything I needed to move forward with my task at hand.” And I know that the impact of the tasks that they’re going to do are going to raise the tide for all boats. And that feels like success to me.