Solar apprenticeships are key to meeting renewable energy goals

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

Credit: The Solar Foundation

Apprenticeships are one of the best ways to train and retain talent in a given industry. Apprentices are taught the job and paid for their work simultaneously, opening the career to those who couldn’t afford to take classes without an income stream. Industries like plumbing, electrical and many others have well-established apprenticeship programs, but the relatively new career of solar installer hasn’t had that option.

Until now.

In this episode of the Contractor’s Corner podcast, we talk with Richard Lawrence, program director at clean energy nonprofit IRECand Colleen McCann Kettles, director of the workforce and business development division 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 for more insight on the consumer protections that come along with apprenticeships, and how these programs benefit utility-scale solar contractors.

Find the Contractor’s Corner podcast on your favorite podcast app. Thank you to this month’s sponsors, scaniflyAmerican Wire Group and DCE Solar

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

Lawrence: Apprenticeships are an age-old way to train somebody in a job. A registered apprenticeship is an apprenticeship that meets certain criteria of the US Dept. of Labor or a state apprenticeship agency that also includes the requirement that they are an employee. There’s a paid on-the-job experience, and they have to receive classroom instruction outside of the work environment.

There’s over a thousand occupations that are currently apprenticeable in the US and so there’s lots of different options for doing that.

Why is solar not yet recognized by the DOL?

Lawrence: While the occupation of the solar installer in particular is one occupation that is not yet recognized as a principle, there are others in the industry that are. Definitely electrician [apprenticeships], a lot of people are familiar with, and that’s one of the largest apprenticeship programs in the country. There’s other job roles as well that are apprenticeable, like project manager. So, there’s opportunities to use that across the industry, but right now solar installer is not recognized. We are working to change that. It’s not recognized nationally, but in Florida they were able to get it recognized there.

kettles: Florida is fortunate in that we are one of the states that can register an apprenticeship program with the DOL. Our apprenticeship program was approved in February of this year and we’ve been working on it since about October 2021. We were able to get our Florida Dept. of Education, which is our apprenticeship agency for Florida, to approve the solar energy technician apprenticeship.

We took the solar thermal [installer] as well as the PV installer and we blended that into a single two-year apprenticeship program. 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 to a person working in the field?

Lawrence: There’s a lot of benefits to both the employee as well as the employer for having a registered apprenticeship program to train the workforce. Starting with the employee, while they’re getting trained in that job, they are actually getting paid a wage and that wage then has to be progressively increased during that apprenticeship time.

It benefits the employer because they get that employee doing productive work that they can pay a lower wage during the apprenticeship period, and that again builds as they increase their training and knowledge and skills. The employee benefits by a greater wage and the employer benefits by having 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 that they put into training. They see those types of returns in lower turnover and higher productivity.

What is the road ahead for getting this nationally recognized?

Lawrence: The key piece with apprenticeships in the construction trades is that we do need to have consensus with all the stakeholders, which includes the independent contractors’ associations, it includes the union shops and then obviously the employers.

We’re doing a lot of outreach to the industry, to the unions and trying to come together on some agreement. Then we start to get into some details around what type of training then is involved at different stages and how long it will last. Some of the key reasons why we’re looking at this as a separate apprenticeship is the need to move quickly. Some of the other apprenticeship programs, it’s a one-to-one mentoring ratio, so it takes four years to train that next person to train the next person. That is not going to meet the growth demands that the industry has.

If we want to meet the administration’s goals of a 100% clean energy power grid, that is going to require almost a quadrupling of the workforce within the next 10 years. The industry does need some solutions to be able to not shortcut the training, but to train somebody in the role that they’re doing adequately and to do it with a process that’s going to be able to move faster and train more people than the current electrician system does.

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