Charting Your Solar Course

Beginner

Inside this Article

Group of Solar Students
Group of Solar Students
Getting Hands-On Experience
If installing renewable energy systems is your career path, hands-on experience is critical to your future success in the field. This type of training is also helpful for those looking to apply concepts learned in the classroom.
On-Site Workshop
On-site workshops and courses typically devote significant time to classroom learning, studying RE system concepts before students head into the lab yard for hands-on training.
Eco-Campus
Some RE training centers offer students hands-on opportunities to work on many different system types and mounting structures.
On-Site, Hands-On Training
On-site, hands-on training can be the most valuable kind, putting your book learning to the test.
Group of Solar Students
Getting Hands-On Experience
On-Site Workshop
Eco-Campus
On-Site, Hands-On Training

Looking to break into the solar biz? Even in these challenging economic times, there are jobs to be had in this growing market, and with government funds and decreasing costs fueling new projects and green job training, the time is right to make your move. With a little know-how, the right training, and a sunny disposition, you can be on a new, green career path.

Finding Your Path

The first step is to find the job you would like in the solar energy industry. Research the various careers and which skills are required. A good place to start is the online help-wanted ads. The job descriptions posted on job search and company Web sites will help you determine what skills and credentials are needed for specific jobs. Social networking Web sites, like Facebook and LinkedIn, are excellent resources as well. You can connect with professionals in the field who might be willing to share their experiences and answer your questions.

While much of this article discusses installation and system design training, there are many specialties within the solar industry to consider. What path you choose depends on what skills you have—and what skills you’re willing to learn. Opportunities are plentiful in associated fields as well—most notably energy efficiency, energy management, and building sciences. But even if you’re not tech-savvy or interested in field work, you can still find a job in solar energy. The industry depends upon an ever-growing nontechnical workforce, with jobs ranging from truck drivers and warehouse managers to accountants and staffers in human resources and public relations.

The Installer Path

Decades ago, besides know-how, all you needed to do PV installation work was a working knowledge of electricity and a truck. There was little oversight or regulation. The National Electrical Code didn’t even include PV systems until 1983—the birth year of solar’s Section 690.

Long gone are the days of learning by trial and error on the job. The majority of solar industry jobs now require specialized training and, in some cases, a trade license, apprenticeship time, and certification. Fortunately, there is no shortage of training options. With more than $500 million in funds from the Economic Stimulus Act and other governmental grants earmarked for green job training, more options are coming. However, some new training companies are making misleading claims about the quality of their training and trainers, making it more important than ever for you to do your homework before signing up.

The level of training you require depends on your ultimate objective, your current skills, and any local requirements. Before you select your training program, be sure to consider the education and credentials required by your local jurisdiction to work legally and to qualify your customers’ systems for incentives.

If you are an electrician wanting to incorporate PV installation into your business or a roofer interested in learning the hardware for mounting on roofs, then hands-on training, such as assembling a working system, is essential. If you are an engineer, advanced-level classes—for example, those covering in-depth, PV-specific NEC issues—will aid your move into design work or manufacturing. If you are fresh out of high school or making a dramatic career change, an engineering degree may be the foundation you need to get a job as a PV system designer.

Even if you wish to get an office job at a solar energy company—say as an administrative assistant, accountant, or office manager—having some technical background will be helpful. Adding a few online courses to your résumé may differentiate you from other job candidates, and a basic understanding of the technology will help you do your job more effectively.

Weighing Your Options

With the increased national interest in the solar industry, more schools and organizations are developing solar training programs and curricula. To find the program that best suits your needs, the “Schools/Organizations Offering PV Education” table starting on page 40 provides information for more than 150 solar education providers, from RE-specific training centers to university programs. But first it’s helpful to examine the pros and cons of various training options.

On-Site Workshops & Programs. An increasing number of organizations and companies offer renewable energy classroom workshops and programs—ranging from a few days to several weeks. While most include hands-on training, some use lectures and textbooks exclusively. Programs can be short, intensive weeklong courses or months-long courses through a college or trade school. The important thing to remember is that full training takes time and dedication—learning to install a safe, reliable, code-compliant system takes much more than a five-day course.

The most popular courses—and the ones with the longest waiting lists—are those that offer a balance of hands-on and book learning, and let you work individually or in groups to assemble (and sometimes install) a working system.

Compared to online courses, one advantage of on-site learning is the face-to-face interaction with instructors and other students—and the networking that naturally occurs and may lead to future jobs. Programs that offer hands-on learning allow students to work with and install system components in a supervised setting, adding to and solidifying concepts learned during lectures.

Most of these programs are open to anyone who has the desire to learn. If you can pay the workshop fee and you’re willing to travel to the site, then you’re in. Fees—which can vary from a couple hundred to several thousand dollars—and related travel expenses may be too costly for some, as most programs do not offer financial aid and require time off from work.

Many programs are not generally accredited through an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and therefore cannot be taken for college credit.  However, they may have accreditation from ISPQ (see “Quality Control & RE Education” sidebar on page 47). Most offer a certificate of completion. These certificates should not be confused with industry-recognized certifications, such as that offered by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). Some of these programs meet criteria set by NABCEP and may fulfill educational requirements needed to qualify for taking the NABCEP exam, and/or qualify as continuing education credits required to maintain NABCEP certification.

Depending on your background and existing skill set, attending a workshop or two may get your foot in the door with a solar company, but you’ll likely need to pursue some level of certification or additional credentials if you’re serious about making a career in the industry.

Online Courses. Many well-established training centers now offer online courses, which generally run from four weeks to several months. The curricula is usually the same as the classroom courses offered by the same provider, but without the on-site group dynamic or hands-on opportunities. Instructors are available for questions, and communication is usually via e-mail and message boards. However, responses can take anywhere from minutes to days, depending on the number of students in the course and message timing.

Students can interact and pose online questions, but they complete lessons and perform classroom exercises, quizzes, and homework on their own, which can be an advantage compared to group settings, since instructors can gauge each student’s level of understanding independently. A key benefit of online education is the lack of geographical constraints: All you need is an Internet connection. If there are no solar workshops offered in your area, you can still participate in RE training courses via distance learning. Online courses also offer greater flexibility and convenience for people who work or have families. The slower, self-paced schedule can be both a blessing and a curse, allowing students to retain and synthesize the information but requiring a fair amount of self-discipline to stay focused.

Online courses are a good way to prepare for a basic, hands-on course, but they also can be a good way to recap, or expand upon, material learned in a hands-on course or workshop.

Community colleges offer a variety of certificate, degree, and continuing education programs to train technicians for careers in manufacturing, maintenance, and installation of RE systems. Many programs have good reputations, and unlike RE training centers, tend to have more support for students, like financial aid and career counseling. Classes can accommodate part-time and working students, and most credits are transferable to four-year colleges offering bachelor’s degrees and higher. Plus, tuition costs are considerably less compared to four-year schools. Like other RE training programs, those at community colleges are in high demand and often have long wait lists.

A two-year associate’s degree could be a good fit for newcomers to the solar work force who might benefit from having a degree or for individuals wanting to shift their career in an entirely new direction. Two-year programs can include hands-on shop time—and internships spent working side-by-side with trained technicians in the field. Having a degree tends to carry a bit more weight when it comes time to apply for certain jobs and garner higher starting salaries.

You may spend some of your time completing general education requirements for a more rounded education, and find that required classes are offered infrequently (i.e., every other semester). Smaller class sizes can mean more personal attention from your instructor and more time with the equipment, but it also means there are fewer spots available, which may make it harder to get classes you need.

Some people appreciate a general educational foundation and feel that taking a variety of course topics keeps the educational experience diverse. Others favor a more focused route. In that case, pursuing a one-year certificate or enrolling in noncredit continuing education courses may be the best option. Such programs may be a good fit for career changers looking to test the waters or those already in the work force who want to enhance their existing skills. For an even quicker fix, consider shorter, job-specific training offered through vocational or trade schools.

Informational interviews with a program’s directors or instructors can be helpful in assessing whether a program will meet your needs—and whether the classes you want will be offered when you need them. As with any other training option, you’ll want to verify the experience and qualifications of the instructors, and talk to recent graduates to find out whether the program proved valuable in the job market and opened the right doors.

Four-Year Schools. Numerous colleges and universities offer undergraduate and graduate degree programs that lay the groundwork for careers in RE. Typically, RE-related coursework falls under engineering, building science, or various environmental programs.

Until recently, there were few programs that focused specifically on RE, but more and more schools recognize the growing need for RE-specific training and have specialized four-year degrees to prepare students for a range of careers in the renewable energy industry. The Oregon Institute of Technology in Portland, the State University of New York in Canton, Illinois State University in Normal, and Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, are among the schools leading the way. Such programs often have a strong focus on engineering principles and offer coursework in PV, wind, biomass, hydropower, and geothermal energy, as well as energy management and energy efficiency. (Note: The table lists several university programs, but isn’t all-inclusive.)

While a college degree is not necessary for success in the solar industry, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one. However, if you would like to work in product development or in energy management, then a degree is essential. Depending on the program, you may find yourself spending more time in the lecture hall than in the field. Look for programs with a strong hands-on component and internship placement, and be sure to take advantage of every opportunity to do field work. Four-year degrees are more expensive and time consuming, but starting salaries tend to be higher, depending on the market and the position. Financial aid and scholarships can lessen the financial burden for those who qualify.

Apprenticeships. In some jurisdictions, an apprenticeship is a requirement to earn your license to install PV or solar thermal systems. Most programs combine paid on-the-job training with related classroom instruction. An apprentice works under the supervision of a license holder, generally a master electrician, plumber, or HVAC technician. Typically, an apprentice will work during the day and attend night or weekend classes at a technical school or community college. Depending on the jurisdiction and the license, an apprenticeship program may last from one to four years. Upon completion of the program, an apprentice must pass a written exam to qualify to work for a licensed contractor and supervise other apprentices. In some states, this allows an installer to pull permits and start an installation business.

Required or not, an apprenticeship program can be a great way to get the hands-on training and education you need. From day one, you earn a paycheck, and depending on the employer or program, you can earn college credit toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree—in some cases, your employer may even reimburse you for all or part of your tuition fees.

Many states operate an apprenticeship and training division to assist with the process, and the U.S. Department of Labor recently launched its Office of Apprenticeship to help connect individuals with government-approved apprenticeships. Since state regulations and training opportunities vary, it is best to contact your state’s licensing board to find approved apprenticeship programs in your area. If you plan to pursue NABCEP certification down the line, you will also want to confirm that the apprenticeship program meets the program’s experience and education eligibility requirements.

Both union and non-union training centers sponsor apprenticeship opportunities. The National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee (NJATC), a collaboration between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the National Electrical Contractors Association, has become very active in PV education and training. (Note: Many individual JATC training centers, which were too numerous to list in the table, offer solar training for electricians.) Local chapters of the Associated Builders and Contractors association and the Independent Electrical Contractors Association might have leads. Individual plumbing, HVAC, and electrical contracting companies may also operate apprenticeship programs.

Choosing an Installer Training Program

Before selecting a program, ask plenty of questions to ensure that the program you choose is reputable and the right one for you.

Get Student References. Don’t just read “canned” testimonials. Ask the program for a few local contacts who went through the program, and ask around for others to get all sides of the story.

Investigate the Training Center. What organization or individual administers the program and what are their qualifications? Is the institution respected and known by the leading industry groups, such as the American Solar Energy Society or Solar Energy Industries Association? Is the program accredited by the IREC’s ISPQ? How many of the instructors on staff are NABCEP-certified installers or ISPQ-certified trainers? (See the “Quality Control & RE Education” sidebar.)

Scope Out the Facility. When possible, visit the training facility to see if the latest equipment is being used and that the site is well-maintained. Disorder can indicate safety issues and disregard for regulations. Are there procedures that ensure safety and safe practices? For installation and design courses, does the facility have a roof or building to work with? The more realistic the setting, the more valuable the training.

Look Into the Course Content. What does the training program promise to prepare you for? Do the leading industry groups recognize the legitimacy of the specific training or certification? What skills will you have upon completing the program or course? How long has the institution offered the specific training? Is the course preparing you to pass a test, or is it training you to do a job properly? How many students are in each course? How much hands-on time do you get with projects and equipment?

Ask for Credentials. Who is the course instructor, and what are their qualifications? Find out exactly who teaches the specific course, and don’t hesitate to ask for résumés and/or biographies. How many years has the instructor worked in the field and in what capacity? How many systems have they installed? What types of systems have they installed? Is the instructor NABCEP- or ISPQ-certified? The best instructors are those with extensive field experience—they’ve designed and installed systems for many years, made mistakes along the way (and learned from them), and can explain these concepts in a classroom.

Consider Local & State Requirements. Talk to your local inspections office, Secretary of State’s office, solar energy association, and utility about the local, regional, and state regulations for PV and solar hot water systems. Are there any license or certification requirements in your local jurisdiction? What education or credentials do you need to work legally and qualify for grant programs and incentives? Do you need an electrical or plumbing license, apprenticeship time, NABCEP certification, or any other specific education?

Be Patient. Solar professionals are responsible for people’s investments and safety—an improperly wired PV system or shoddy workmanship can be a hazard to utility workers, homeowners, and others. Don’t just take the first-available seat in any course—be prepared to wait for an opening in a top-notch program. Use the time wisely to update your résumé, work on your business plan, get some advance education, or read up on industry advancements.

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David Del Vecchio is a mechanical engineer who has been installing PV systems since 1998. A graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology and a NABCEP-certified PV installer, he owns Solar Seed, a North Carolina consulting and design company. Del Vecchio teaches PV courses for the NC Solar Center, Solar Energy International, and a local community college.

Resources:

American Solar Energy Society • www.ases.org

Institute for Sustainable Power Quality • www.ispq-central.com.

Interstate Renewable Energy Council • www.irecusa.org

North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners • www.nabcep.org

Solar Energy Industry Associations • www.seia.org

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