Community Colleges Answer Obama’s Call To Build A Skilled Solar Workforce


Earlier this month, President Barack Obama announced commitments and executive actions to advance solar deployment in the U.S. One of the key areas he covered was ‘building a skilled solar workforce.’

In the speech and supporting White House documents, the president noted that the Department of Energy's (DOE) Solar Instructor Training Network (SITN) ‘will support training programs at community colleges across the country that will assist 50,000 workers to enter the solar industry by 2020.’ That will be an increase from the SITN's existing 400 community colleges that have trained more than 22,000 people for work in the solar industry since 2010.

The announcement did not offer funding or timeline details, but industry experts say they are optimistic.
‘The president has given us a worthy target of 50,000 individuals to receive training by 2020,’ says Joe Sarubbi, project manager at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), which oversees the SITN. ‘We are just excited that the president recognized the value of what we're bringing to the table.’

What the network brings to the table is train-the-trainer programs. The SITN consists of nine regional training providers, or community colleges that train solar instructors. The instructors then return to their community colleges and teach solar courses to the career changers and other students interested in solar jobs. Sarubbi notes that the community colleges all use grassroots efforts in which they meet with local employers to find out what types of workers these solar companies need. It turns out they need more than installers, so many schools have expanded their programs.

In fact, according to the DOE's Solar Career Map, the universe of solar energy jobs is expanding. The website shows basic, middle and advanced jobs, ranging from solar installation helper to residential PV system designer to solar project developer. The map does not show the path that a person should take to go from, say, entry-level technician to power systems engineer, but it does show 36 job titles, only some of which involve climbing onto roofs.

‘There are people who lost their jobs or need to get into something else,’ says Judy Fisher, program coordinator of the Green Academy at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City. ‘A lot are women or older people saying, 'I don't want to be climbing the roof.'’

The President's May 9 speech brought more awareness to solar training, Fisher says. ‘That's part of what President Obama brought to the discussion. People said, 'I had no idea you have solar.' It also says to businesses, 'There are community colleges close to you; maybe they can provide training.'’

Fisher adds that there are not enough instructors to train the workforce. Salt Lake Community College provides training for the Rocky Mountain region of the SITN and also teaches students who want to go into the solar business. Students are looking for stackable credentials. ‘You take the basics, then stack something on such as sales,’ she explains. ‘The industry is growing so much, and companies are looking at least for entry-level certification.’

Students can take a variety of classes, including those that prepare them for the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification in PV installation or PV technical sales.

Installation and sales are not the only skills solar workers need. They also need business and math skills, says Teresa Jones, associate professor of environmental science/plant biology at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Mass.

‘In terms of jobs, we have a number of solar companies that are two- or three-person businesses, built by our graduates,’ says Jones, who is also the sustainable energy program coordinator for the college. ‘Our poster-child company has 12 employees, and 11 came through our program.’

Graduates also work for nonprofits and for towns.

‘They have solar in their toolbox,’ Jones says. ‘They are out talking to people in the town about getting solar. So, there is a percentage of people going up on roofs, but the spectrum is bigger in renewable industries.’

The SITN keeps up with this widening spectrum by increasing its course offerings to instructors. One area that gained attention recently is Spanish-language courses for instructors. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 27% of California residents are foreign born, and of those, 53% were born in Latin America.

‘Rather than adding entry-level programs, we said, 'What do we need to do in California?'’ says Gerry Bernstein, director of advanced transportation and renewables at City College of San Francisco.

Bernstein notes that teaching instructors how to teach Spanish-speaking installers is one example of how the solar curriculum has changed in recent years. While some college courses can use the same books year after year – think Shakespeare – the solar courses must adapt as the industry changes. Some schools teach code requirements for PV systems, project finance and other topics.

Max Parsley, another instructor at City College of San Francisco, says he would like to add more classes to reflect the growing demand for workers in operations and maintenance, as well as a site survey class. ‘I had some expression of interest from people who didn't even know we taught solar,’ he says.

President Obama's announcement might have additional good results.

‘Impact number one of the announcement is positive change in public perception about solar,’ says Tim Wilhelm, professor and program coordinator for electrical technology, renewable energy at Kankakee Community College in Kankakee, Ill. ‘We can shift public perception to the fact that this is benign and useful technology that is more affordable than ever, and there are competent, trained people because of programs like ours.’

Kankakee Community College is SITN's regional partner for the Midwest. Wilhelm says while many programs are teaching mostly installation, some are also expanding into courses that prepare students for jobs in sales and marketing, maintenance, and engineering. Some Kankakee Community College graduates have gone on to earn bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges, while others have worked at utilities and other employers.

Wilhelm thinks another positive impact of the president's announcement might be additional funding for training. The grant for SITN will expire at the end of this year, and although the DOE has not announced future funding, Wilhelm is optimistic. ‘Policy really has a huge impact on how quickly the solar market will move,’ he says.

Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.

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