Solar PV Tech Students Get Set for Missouri’s Fastest-Growing Trade

By on May 31, 2019
Solar PV Tech Students Get Set for Missouri’s Fastest-Growing Trade

Solar photovoltaic installation training program equips students to find meaningful work in the rapidly-growing renewable energy industry.

The bright smiles on the faces of six recent graduates of St. Louis Community College’s Solar Photovoltaic (PV) Technician accelerated training program could give the sun a run for its money. The graduates have good reason to be beaming: solar panel installers are in high demand in Missouri, with employers projecting solar job growth of over 8% nationwide in 2019.

“Solar energy is still kind of viewed as an alternative power source,” said STLCC solar instructor, Ryan Chester, as he addressed the graduation attendees. “However, in spite of that designation, it’s quickly becoming a primary source of energy all over the world. In the near future, renewable energy sources will provide more energy to homes than coal, gas or oil.”

In fact, according to the 2019 Clean Jobs America report:

  • Clean jobs outnumber fossil fuels jobs nearly three to one (3.26 million to 1.17 million).
  • Solar alone employs more than twice the number of coal workers.
  • Solar provides the largest share of electric power generation in the U.S.—100,000 more than the next two sectors combined.
  • A new solar project is installed in America every two minutes.

Solar energy installation training sets the course for a meaningful career

Not only are the graduates eager to incorporate solar energy into their current occupations or to enter the field as a solar PV installer—a profession where the median pay nationwide exceeds $42,000 per year—but they were also gratified to expand their education into a trade that has a meaningful impact on their communities.

“I wanted to do more things in my community, so I got some construction skills to help build up the community,” said solar PV training program graduate, Sheena Houston. “I decided to join this program and try to get some skills that could help build up my neighborhood. I felt like if I could get those skills and help build it up then it would make some effective change.”

Like Houston, many students are drawn to the solar energy industry by the desire to have a positive impact on the world and the people, animals and plants that inhabit it.

“Stability, opportunities and growth are all important, but one thing people often overlook is the importance of morale and job satisfaction, and two important parts of this are being proud of what you do and feeling as if your work contributes to the greater good,” said Chester. “When you work in the solar energy field, the work you do contributes to overall improvements, to the environment, including reducing pollution and beating back climate change.”

Solar PV is a technology generally used on a panel that converts sunlight (solar radiation) into direct current electricity by using semiconductors to form electric currents that can be adjusted to scale to the amount of power needed. Beyond the fact that solar power is renewable, inexhaustible and non-polluting to the environment, solar energy promotes local employment and contributes to sustainable development and cost savings. The average useful life of solar panels is over 300 years, and the cost of installing and maintaining solar panels has come down considerably in recent years as PV technology has developed, furthering the popularity of this energy source among consumers.

“The installation of commercial and residential solar panels can contribute to mass savings for people,” declared Chester. “People can eliminate their electric bills entirely or even contribute energy back to the grid. These savings can contribute nicely to the overall economic development of communities and result in more jobs overall.”

Partner funding provides solar PV program participants access to free training

STLCC’s North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) approved solar installation training program was originally developed in 2011 when the College was contracted to develop this program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: Missouri State Energy Sector Partnership and Training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. Once the grant ended, STLCC transitioned the program to a Continuing Education program offered once in the spring and once in the fall. However, the graduates of this most recent program were fortunate to have their education funded by a special grant awarded by the Bank of America Charitable Foundation.

“Bank of America is honored to have played a role in helping solar program graduates right here in St. Louis to further their skillsets,” said Katie Fischer, Bank of America Market Manager. “We’re proud to foster workforce readiness programs and are committed to environmental sustainability and believe both are exemplified through the recent accomplishments made here at St. Louis Community College.”

To qualify, students needed to have a high school diploma or equivalency (GED or HiSET) and to achieve minimum WorkKeys scores. Priority was given to residents of the St. Louis Promise Zone with a valid driver’s license.

Houston was informed about the solar PV technician training program from her friend who knew it might be a great complement to her experience in the construction industry.

“He told me about it and I immediately called to get in,” Houston said. “I already had taken my WorkKeys because I did the BUD [Building Union Diversity] program, so everything just fell into place and I got in. I’m super thankful.”

Like Houston, program graduate, Jaroy Williams, found the solar technician training program to be a logical next step in his career path. He graduated from one of STLCC’s EPA-backed environmental remediation programs and currently works in the field but was eager to add solar PV installation training to his portfolio of knowledge.

“I’ve done roofing, asbestos, lead abatement, everything down the line,” he said. “This solar tech program brought me knowledge that I could do this, something I know I’m going to need and use for the rest of my life.”

The solar PV training curriculum extends from basic training to certification testing

The course spans eight weeks with classes held three evenings a week from 5 to 9 p.m. at STLCC’s Florissant Valley campus—Center for Workforce Innovation. Participants of the solar technician training program gain a wide breadth of knowledge, learning to calculate power potential and design solar PV systems for homes, understanding how solar PV systems operate and installing solar panels and inverters on a mock roof, and preparing to take the Solar PV Associate exam through the NABCEP.

“I felt the class was very informational. It was more like an apprenticeship because you didn’t think you were going to learn certain aspects of solar, but it was more in depth than we thought,” said Williams. “Most people in the class were thinking it was just going to cover a broad aspect of solar panels, but the class really goes in depth about how the sun works, how rays work on solar panels, how much sun is needed to power so many watts a day or how many sunlight hours are needed to power so many solar panels. It’s really a top-notch class.”

Williams’ fellow program graduate, Kieleyata Robertson, agreed.

“The program was more technical than I thought it would be,” Robertson said. “But at least we have experience now in the classroom so once we get out in the field and they say something we will know what they’re talking about. We appreciate that.”

In addition to the formal instruction Chester provided, Betsy Ford, residential business development specialist from local solar energy design and installation firm, StraightUp Solar, presented to the class about the growing solar industry and the job potential in the Midwest.

“[She] spoke about actually doing solar and the different jobs you can take and how the field is opening up in solar,” said Williams. “I found that to be very informative.”

Students also found value in learning from one another as a part of a close-knit cohort.

“Some days different people were getting the information while some weren’t understanding it, and someone could explain it a different way to help the others understand it,” Williams said. “We helped each other get through the class.”

Students learn what it takes to make it in the fast-growing solar energy industry

While good instruction and solid support are key to success in the program, the students also acknowledged that it takes personal strength to prevail.

“You have to be dedicated, for one,” said Houston. “Dedicated, hardworking and willing to learn. You have to be open to learning a whole new world.”

Williams concurred with his classmate.

“Hard work and dedication,” he declared. “And you have to go in with an open mind because a lot of days you’re getting off work because you still have your normal life to live and it’s an after-work course. So, anything I did normally, I just put the class in place of it; like if I normally hung out with friends, I just dedicated that time.”

The students recognized that being an adaptable, dedicated worker were not only useful traits for the class, but for the solar PV installation job itself. The 2019 Clean Jobs America report states that 66% of solar jobs are involved in manufacturing and construction, which are known to be ever-evolving, strength-testing industries.

“To have an installer job, I think you have to be intuitive, on your toes and willing to learn at all times,” Williams said. “I think it’s probably a constantly changing field because there’s something new to learn about it every day.”

For Houston, the construction industry provides an exciting opportunity for her to stretch a bit out of her comfort zone.

“You definitely have to be a little tough and hardworking, and not afraid to get dirty,” she said. “I used to work in corporate, in project management, so this is completely, completely different from me sitting at a desk, being in meetings all day. It’s just a whole different world.”

As a female member of a local laborers’ union, Houston also notes that gender and diversity dynamics in the construction field seem to be experiencing a shift.

“The [BUD program] gives an opportunity for women and people of color to enter into the unions here in St. Louis. Right now, I think it’s a really good opportunity for women to be in the construction industry,” she said. “I actually feel like we’re in high demand because there are so many regulations in the city on so many projects that require women to be part of the project, so that opens doors for us automatically. I’m at BJC because of these regulations and stipulations around each job that happens in the city, so I’m really thankful and grateful for the opportunities. The dynamic is definitely changing and becoming more accepting of women being in the construction field. Things are changing.”

Solar PV training program graduates earn an edge toward an in-demand career path

As the solar energy industry continues to grow, the demand for qualified solar PV installation technicians will increase as well.

“With the industry growth comes job opportunities, which is why many people are seeking out careers in solar energy today,” Chester said. “And someone open to seeking out training like these students have has an excellent chance of having a very successful career in solar.”

Chester recently attended an Earth Day event and talked to multiple solar companies that confirmed the job demand.

“They all said what they need is trained people for the openings they have; they’re looking for trained people right now. So, no matter what your talents and interests are, there’s a place for you in the solar industry,” he said. “The level of growth in the industry is nothing short of spectacular and the future looks extraordinarily bright.”

The path is already promising for several of the recent graduates. In the short time since the program ended, one graduate has acquired a related job as a union carpenter and another is interviewing with a leading provider of environmental consulting and engineering services for a job connected to the training. In addition, one graduate who currently owns a roofing company will be expanding her business to include solar energy as a result of this program.

Want to find out how to acquire training in the fastest-growing job in Missouri? Visit STLCC’s Solar PV Installation Tech accelerated training program webpage or call 314-644-9786 to learn more.

About Rebecca Rutherford

Rebecca Rutherford is Marketing Communications Coordinator of St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group, which delivers non-credit continuing education opportunities, corporate training and community services to the St. Louis region.

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