Many job training programs start with the best of intentions. They want to train workers for careers in growing industries.
What’s confusing is that, in today’s economy, it may seem like there are jobs going unfilled everywhere from restaurants to construction to truck driving. Nobody knows how long certain industries will need more workers than they can find. But recently, across the economy, employment demand has started to stabilize. Unemployment claims have even started to rise.
In the short term, the employment market will probably continue volatile. But in the long term, certain rapidly growing industries are sure to remain good prospects for new workers. Near the top of the list is solar power.
Over the last decade, jobs as solar installers have grown 167%, which is five times faster than jobs in the overall economy, according to the US Department of Energy. Jobs in other areas of solar, from manufacturing to engineering to data analysis are also being added at a high rate.
Why There’s a Shortage of Solar Installers
Our industry needs people, especially installers. Those jobs pay well, on average between $45,000 and $90,000 per year. Yet, many of these jobs have gone unfilled for months or years. Americans overwhelming support more solar power. And young people want to get into clean energy careers.
So, what’s the problem?
The biggest bottleneck is lack of training. Solar installation requires skills in electricity in general and solar photovoltaics in particular. And with many solar installers working on rooftops, training in occupational safety is crucial.
It’s been tough to find workers willing to undergo this training — which can take a couple months or longer to complete — unless the workers know that there will be a payoff at the end of the training. Too many job training programs offer knowledge, experience, and certifications that qualify people to do skilled work. But then those programs have no way of helping their graduates find actual jobs.
To solve that problem, to connect job training to immediate professional work for graduates, earlier this year Secure Futures Solar partnered with educators experienced in job training to develop a pilot apprenticeship program for solar technicians with a pipeline of work available to qualifying graduates on Day One after graduation.
And we did it in a part of America with a special need for new jobs: the coalfield region of Southwest Virginia.
As part of our Securing Solar for Southwest Virginia, itself a partnership with Appalachian Voices and other groups supporting a local economy that’s both prosperous and clean, we worked with Mountain Empire Community College and local high schools to train apprentices to install solar energy systems on campuses of public schools in Wise and Lee Counties.
The college determined that students enrolled in its electrical and energy technology programs were already working in their fields and would have little time to take on additional training in solar power. These college students relied on the salaries from their jobs to support families and could not afford to forgo paid work in order to free up time for the training to qualify as a solar technician.
But what about high school students? Since many of them still live with their parents and have not yet started families of their own, their expenses are low and they don’t yet need to earn a full-time salary.
So, the new program decided to approach the local vocational technical high school to reach out to students ages 16-18, before they reached college. The apprentices would receive college credit and also be paid stipends during their training, as in other workforce development programs. But there was one difference in this program: it would offer not just training but also the option to take real jobs.
Bridging the Gap Between Training and Employment
At the end of the program, successful graduates would be eligible for full-time employment with Secure Futures Solar’s partner performing the installations at the two school divisions, GOT Electric.
This proved to be a successful approach. Ten students enrolled in the solar apprenticeship program in May, which started with a seven-day course of classroom training at the college on related technology for which students were paid $500 to complete. Classroom work was followed by eight weeks of installing solar equipment on school campuses under the supervision of qualified instructors, for which students were paid $17 per hour.
GOT Electric will seek to hire qualified graduates as work is available. The company has a pipeline of a couple years’ work on the current projects and the company expects to extend the pipeline as new projects are contracted.
Officials with Mountain Empire Community College and the Virginia Community College system are pleased with the apprenticeship program so far. They even expect it to serve as a model for workforce development efforts in the future in Southwest Virginia and beyond.
Getting to visit existing solar installations and then build new installations themselves gives students a better appreciation of the importance of their training in solar technology, according to Matthew Rose, Dean of Industrial Technology at MECC.
“Students would be able to drive by each and every day past one of our schools and say ‘I built that.’ And that makes a difference,” says Rose in the video below, a recent webinar from the Virginia Community College System’s workforce development office.
Dr. Jason M. Williams Sr., Coordinator of Apprenticeship and Work-Based Learning at the Virginia Community College System sees the program as so “positive” a model for workforce development that he imagines rolling it out across the Virginia Community College system.
See what Williams, Rose, and others involved with the program have to say about why it’s such a promising approach in the video — and why the eyes of the nation should be focused on an innovative job program coming out of Southwest Virginia.