Solar apprenticeships are key to meeting renewable energy goals

Solar installers wearing white helmets and reflective vests use a drill to fix the panels to the roof.

Credit: The Solar Foundation

Internships are one of the best ways to train and retain talent in a particular industry. Students are taught the job and are paid for their work at the same time, opening up careers for those who could not afford to take classes without an income stream. Industries such as plumbing, electrical, and many others have established learning programs, but the relatively new solar installer career has not had that option.

Until now.

On this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, we talk to Richard Lawrence, program director at nonprofit clean energy IRECand Colleen McCann Kettles, director of the Department of Human Resources and Business Development at the University of Central Florida’s FSEC Energy Research Center. Lawrence and Kettles share their progress in creating the Florida Solar Energy Apprenticeship Program, and how that model can be replicated in other states and at the federal level.

An edited portion of the interview is below, but be sure to listen to the full podcast to learn more about the consumer protections associated with apprenticeships, and how these programs benefit utility-scale solar contractors.

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SPW: What are the basic principles of apprenticeships and why are they important to the solar industry?

Laurens: Apprenticeships are an age-old way of training someone in a job. A registered internship is an internship that meets certain criteria from the United States Department of Labor or a state internship agency that also includes the requirement that they be an employee. There is paid on-the-job experience and they should receive classroom instruction outside of the work environment.

There are currently over a thousand professions that can be apprenticed in the US and so there are many different options for doing so.

Why is solar energy not yet recognized by the DOL?

Laurens: While the solar installer profession, in particular, is one that is not yet recognized as a principle, there are others in the industry that are. Definitely electrician [apprenticeships], are known to many people, and that is one of the largest internship programs in the country. There are also other positions that can be taken in apprenticeship such as project manager. So there are opportunities to use that across the industry, but right now a solar installer isn’t recognized. We are working to change that. It is not recognized nationally, but in Florida they were able to get it recognized there.

Kettles: Florida is fortunate that we are one of the states that can register an internship program with the DOL. Our internship program was approved in February of this year and we have been working on it since about October 2021. We have our Florida Dept. of Education, our Florida Internship Office, to approve the Solar Engineer Internship.

We took the solar thermal [installer] as well as the PV installer and we’ve merged that into one two-year learning path. One hundred and forty-four hours a year of classroom instruction, 2,000 hours a year of on-the-job training.

What are the benefits for someone who works in the field?

Laurens: There are many benefits for both the employee and the employer for having a registered internship program to train the staff. Starting with the employee, as they are being trained in that job, they actually get a wage and that wage then has to be gradually increased during that apprenticeship.

It benefits the employer because they allow that employee to do productive work that they can pay a lower wage during the apprenticeship, and that in turn increases as they increase their education, knowledge and skills. The employee benefits from a higher wage and the employer benefits from a more skilled employee.

Employers who participate in these types of programs can see a net return on that investment of between $1.30 and $3.00 for every $1.00 they put into training. They see that kind of return in lower turnover and higher productivity.

What is the path ahead of us to get this nationally recognized?

Laurens: The most important thing with apprenticeships in the construction industry is that we have to agree with all stakeholders, including independent contractors’ associations, union shops and then of course employers.

We do a lot of outreach to the industry, to the unions and try to come to an agreement. Then we start to go into some detail about what kind of training it is at different stages and how long it will take. One of the main reasons we consider this a separate internship is the need to act quickly. With some other apprentice programs, the mentoring ratio is one-to-one, so it takes four years to train that next person to train the next person. That will not meet the growth requirements set by the industry.

Meeting the government’s targets of having a 100% clean energy grid will require a nearly fourfold increase in the workforce within the next 10 years. The industry needs some solutions not to shorten the training, but to train someone in the role they are adequately doing and to do it with a process that can go faster and train more people than the current electrician system does.

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