Secure Futures’ apprenticeship program is creating solar jobs in Virginia coal country

Ten high school students have embarked on an internship as a solar installer through a program to establish their own solar industry in the basin region of southwest Virginia. The students have undergone classroom training and have now moved on to installing solar power at their public schools in Lee and Wise counties. At the end of the program, qualified graduates are offered on-site tenure based on demand.

The internship program is part of an economic development initiative called Securing Solar for Southwest, which is a partnership with two solar energy companies: Safe future of solar energya commercial solar developer based in Staunton, and GOT Electrica solar engineering, construction and procurement company based in Harrisonburg, VA – along with Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap.

“For students interested in careers in energy technology, it has been difficult in the past to see the value of training in emerging technologies such as solar energy because it was not clear that work in the field would be available in the local area,” said Kristin Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College. “This program is different because it offers career prospects in Southwest Virginia.”

Topics of instruction in classroom courses included industrial safety, introduction to construction, the National Electrical Code, and solar installation. Secure Futures paid each of the students a $500 stipend for completing the classroom sessions in which they each earned nine credits.

Beginning in early June, students entered the eight-week hands-on training phase of the apprenticeship in which they install solar energy equipment on public school campuses in Lee County and Wise County under the supervision of NABCEB-certified solar installers from GOT Electric. Before going to work, Secure Futures provided the students with a set of tools that they can keep. For their work during the internship, students are paid $17 per hour as employees of GOT Electric.

At the end of the internship, based on project demand, qualified graduates will be offered continuous employment with GOT Electric, where they can continue to work on solar energy projects in schools in Lee and Wise counties until their estimated completion date of mid-2023 After that, the company plans to install solar energy systems at additional school departments in the area, providing work for years to come.

Students in the program range from 16 to 18 years old. The Youth Solar Technician Apprenticeship Program is administered under guidelines approved by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.

“Completing such an intensive learning path so early in their working years provides these students with attractive career opportunities,” said Andy Hershberger, president of GOT Electric. “They can pursue further training to qualify as journeyman electricians or they can continue to work as solar installers, using their internship experience to give them an edge.”

Secure Futures Solar initiated the two student-built solar projects. In 2021, the company signed power purchase agreements to supply more than 3 MW of solar panels to a total of 11 public school campuses in Lee County and Wise County. The company is currently negotiating with several other school divisions in Southwest Virginia on additional solar projects that could total more than 5 MW.

“Installations in the schools represent the first of many solar projects we are pursuing with public school districts in the basin region that will create high-paying jobs and educational opportunities with community colleges in the region,” said Franklin “Duke” West, who oversees initiatives for personnel development at Secure Futures Solar. “Southwest Virginia is now able to train locally trained solar installers and place graduates in career paths with good pay and advancement opportunities. Their work is a model for other communities looking to build a financially sustainable clean energy industry locally.”

News item from Secure Futures Solar

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