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Solar Boot Camps No Longer Sufficient for Training a Green Army

Solar Training

We’ve seen this story play out many times before.  A country or region invests heavily in solar energy, and then, quickly faces a labor shortage.

When Germany introduced a range of ambitious solar incentives a few years back, it wasn’t long before the country discovered that its green workforce was ill-equipped to match growing demand for new PV installations.

There simply weren’t enough qualified professionals in the field.

The same thing happened in Ontario after it passed its historic Green Energy Act.  Even during a global recession, the province had a difficult time filling its rosters with knowledgeable solar experts.

Flash forward to 2012, and the US is poised for its own solar labor shortage.

According to a recent report by the Solar Foundation, the solar market could face severe bottlenecks by 2016 unless the industry develops enough new talent to satisfy growing demand for residential and commercial installations.

The only difference between the US and its predecessors – government incentives aren’t behind the growing labor gap.

In fact, the US lags behind so many of its Western neighbors when it comes to renewable energy rebates, tariffs, and tax credits.  This is especially true in Florida – one of the most active but underfunded solar markets in the country.

People Want Jobs.  People Want Solar.  How Is a Labor Shortage Possible?

On the surface, it seems like an impossible situation.  How, in a down economy with high unemployment, could employers honestly be desperate to find more talent?

What happened to the hundreds of thousands of solar installation students across the country that completed their 40 hours of training and sat for the NABCEP Entry Exam?

I think the problem stems from 2 main sources: training and leadership.

1.  Insufficient Solar Training

Part of the problem stems from the training itself.  Solar energy isn’t rocket science, but you’re still dealing with high voltage equipment that must be safely installed on pre-existing homes and businesses.

Safety alone could easily fill 40 hours of classroom time.  Most solar training programs devote an hour or two.  Why?  Because they have to make room to cover regulations, building codes, marketing, site estimations – important topics that could easily fill another 40 hours each.

But instead of getting sufficient exposure in each one of these areas, the vast majority of students cover all of this material in 1 standard workweek.  Then they sit for NABCEP and enter the workforce as bona fide solar PV installation professionals.

At least that’s what their certificates say.

If you ask the employers out there who are desperate for more talent – they’ll tell you that 40 hours from an unlicensed school and a piece a paper just won’t cut it in today’s solar industry.

2.  Insufficient Solar Leadership

We’ve covered this basic theme several times before, but the powers that be don’t always understand the markets they’re trying to nurture.

If you’re an expert in policy, I wouldn’t expect you to be a seasoned professional in electrical engineering as well.  But once you acknowledge the limits of your expertise, I hope that you would recruit the necessary professionals to help you make well-informed decisions – especially when taxpayer dollars are on the line.

Case in point – Broward County, Florida received $4.1 million in government grants to train an army of 1,400 solar professionals.  In a state with no renewable portfolio standards, zero training requirements, very few supportive green policies, and a disconnect between policymakers and industry professionals, is it any wonder that not a single person entered the solar workforce as a result of this project?

They somehow managed to spend the money though.

The Report Predicts a 2016 Shortage.  But It May Already Be Here

The coming labor shortage is forecast for 2016 – around the same time that 75% of the solar market attains grid parity (i.e. solar energy costs as much as traditional utility electricity).

Based on my own experience, I’m convinced the shortage is already here.

At US Solar Institute, we routinely receive calls from solar installers all over the country who want to fill their rosters with new graduates of our Department of Education-licensed solar PV training school.

This is obviously great for us, and even better for our students.

But when you consider that at the time of this writing, we have 150 vacancies to fill – it’s hard to argue that the labor gap isn’t already here.  If we managed to fill one new vacancy a day with one of our recent graduates, it would take us 5 months.

And that’s assuming no new calls come in.

So how do we fix a broken system?

How do we address the pending (or current) labor gap?

  • Better standards?
  • Tougher certifications?
  • Stronger regulations?
  • Mandatory training?
  • More green policies?
  • Stricter requirements?  Or      how about requirements in general (the solar industry has very few      mandated qualifications)

Personally, I’m for all of the above.

I’d also like to see more communication between solar professionals and government officials.  Both sides are necessary since they bring complementary skills to the table.


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