Become a Solar Professional

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Become a Solar Professional
Solar careers are on the rise. Here’s how you can prepare to join the renewable energy workforce.
Solar Career Map
Access the Solar Career Map at bit.ly/SolarCareerMap.
Hands-on classes
Hands-on classes offered by qualified training programs, such as Solar Energy International, will help you gain confidence as you expand your knowledge base.
Solar Instructor Training Network
Find a list of partnering institutions at the Solar Instructor Training Network (sitnusa.org).
Classroom Training
Adequate training of a renewable energy industry professional usually requires both theoretical training (shown here) and hands-on experience.
Hands-on Training
Adequate training of a renewable energy industry professional usually requires both theoretical training and hands-on experience (shown here).
Licensed electricians training in renewable energy
Even licensed electricians find solar-specific training important to expanding their career into the renewable energy industry.
NABCEP logo
NABCEP offers the most widely recognized certifications in the industry for solar heating and PV installation professionals.
Penn State University offers RE-specific degrees
Penn State University offers RE-specific degrees, including an online masters program.
SEIA logo
SEIA is a membership organization that may provide you with valuable connections to others in the solar industry.
ASES logo
ASES is a membership organization that may provide you with valuable connections to others in the solar industry.
Online job board
Online job boards and industry databases can be great places to research both local and national job openings.
Become a Solar Professional
Solar Career Map
Hands-on classes
Solar Instructor Training Network
Classroom Training
Hands-on Training
Licensed electricians training in renewable energy
NABCEP logo
Penn State University offers RE-specific degrees
SEIA logo
ASES logo
Online job board

Solar’s future is a shining star in an otherwise dark economy. Here’s how to put your career in the sunlight.

In 2012, the solar industry saw a 13.2% increase in employment in the United States—nearly six times higher job growth than in the rest of the U.S. economy. And in 2013, the industry experienced a 20% growth in solar jobs—10 times higher than the national employment rate. This trend is expected to continue as increasing demand for solar will require new professionals involved in the installation, design, sales, and manufacturing of solar heating and photovoltaic (PV) systems.

Industry Inroads

If you’re looking for career in renewable energy, now’s the time to assess your skills and interests, which will help you choose your pathway into the solar industry. An electrical contractor will have a more direct path to becoming a PV installer than an individual without trades experience who is finishing an unrelated college degree. Not having experience or a related degree may mean a longer or more difficult path.

Solar employers tend to favor those with bachelor’s degrees and related work experience. Roughly 40% of the new solar positions in 2012 required a bachelor’s degree, and 50% required related work experience—some required both.

Aspiring solar professionals can readily attain “related work experience.” Applicants with experience in general construction, roofing, electrical, plumbing, or heating have attractive overlapping skill sets. Since the design of solar systems is complementary to many engineering disciplines, traditional design backgrounds provide relevant work experience and training for system and equipment designers. Experience in other industries related to sales, marketing, manufacturing, or accounting can also be assets for particular jobs.

Mapping Your Path

The Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and the U.S. Department of Energy collaborated on a tool for learning about diverse jobs within the solar industry. The Solar Career Map details common job descriptions, the skills and experience required for these positions, and pathways for career advancement within the solar industry.

College-Bound

If you’re entering college, consider earning a degree in a related discipline (engineering, construction management, building trades, business, etc.). You may also choose a program focused on solar technologies.

A number of these schools have been involved with the Department of Energy’s Solar Instructor Training Network (SITN), developed to increase the quality and accessibility of training across the country. Nine regional training providers train instructors and support the development of solar training programs at schools and other training institutions.

NABCEP Entry-Level Program

If you have limited solar experience, you can increase your formal knowledge and receive an industry-recognized PV or solar heating credential through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP).

The NABCEP Entry Level program is a collaboration between NABCEP, industry professionals, and training organizations. The program is based on “Entry Level Learning Objectives” developed by subject matter experts and used as the basis for training content.

Upon completion of training from a NABCEP Entry Level provider, you can take the PV or Solar Heating Entry Level exam. If you successfully complete this exam, NABCEP sends you an acknowledgement of your passing score, which can be used to demonstrate your knowledge to prospective employers.

Achieving an Entry Level ack­nowledgment is an appropriate first step for a career in installation, design, manufacturing, and sales. It is also great for complementary industries that may encounter solar projects. For example, architects and engineers in a market with numerous solar installations can benefit greatly from increasing their solar literacy through the NABCEP Entry Level program. Find a current list of approved Entry Level providers at nabcep.org.

Licensing & Certification

In some locales, an installer is required to be licensed. A license is issued by a jurisdiction (typically a state licensing board). Most jurisdictions require an electrical or plumbing contractor’s license if they are being paid to install wiring or potable water piping. This helps protect public safety by assuring training, experience, and knowledge of the regulations.

Solar contractors in some jurisdictions must pass a business exam and a solar exam, as well as document the minimum amount of field experience for the credential. Different states have different requirements of their licensed contractors. For example, licensed electricians in Florida may install PV systems, but they may be required to subcontract roofers to install the PV array. Visit irecusa.org to access the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s solar licensing database, which details the local licensing requirements for installing solar energy systems.

Certification, on the other hand, is voluntary. But the line between voluntary and required can be thin in jurisdictions where certification qualifies installers for utility or state incentives. In these cases, while a license might be sufficient to legally install a system, it would be difficult for an installer to compete with the access to incentives covered by certification. Also, policies such as this promote quality by offering solar-specific credentials in areas where solar licensing is not available. 

NABCEP offers the most widely recognized certifications in the industry for solar heating and PV installation professionals. To become certified, installers must document field experience and pass a rigorous exam based upon a job-task analysis developed by experts in each discipline. These analyses describe the specific skills required to install and maintain solar energy systems. The PV Installation Professional Certification requires that participants document training in workplace safety and solar technology to be eligible for the exam. NABCEP certification is valid for three years and can be renewed by fulfilling requirements for continuing education and work experience.

While the NABCEP Entry Level exam is offered by individual training institutions upon completion of their courses, the NABCEP Certification exams are proctored twice per year at select regional sites. To qualify for the exam, applicants must document their professional experience and training prior to an application deadline. For example, installers who would like to take the October 4, 2014, certification exam must submit their applications by July 18.

Solar sales professionals, site assessors, financial analysts, or application engineers may pursue NABCEP PV Technical Sales certification, which requires solar sales experience and some formal training. The type and extent of required training depends upon the applicant’s professional experience. NABCEP has seven qualifying categories that are a combination of experience and training. An applicant needs to meet one of these categories to qualify to take the exam.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) offers licensed electricians its PV System Installer certification. Like the NABCEP PV Installation Professional certification, candidates for UL certification must document safety training and pass a solar-specific exam. Unlike NABCEP certification, UL does not require documentation of experience as a PV installer. 

While certification may not be required to access solar incentives in some jurisdictions, installation professionals may pursue this path as a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Professional certification can demonstrate to an employer that the installer is ready for a larger leadership role or it may serve as a marketing tool if the installer wants to start their own business or qualify their existing one.

Training

Obtaining a professional credential requires on-the-job experience and often requires completion of formal solar training. For industry positions that require higher than entry-level technical expertise, there are solar-specific courses at community colleges, private training organizations, trade associations, and through manufacturers.

Keep in mind that there can be a significant difference in the quality and value of training programs and instructors. Research the training institution, instructor, and course syllabus to be sure that you are getting the training and industry acceptance you need.

If you plan to use the training to qualify for certification or licensure, be sure to review these requirements. NABCEP requires a specific number of course hours to qualify for certification, and the course content often must be aligned with the relevant job task analysis.

IREC’s credential for training programs and instructors can be helpful in selecting a solar training provider. IREC accreditation signifies that the training program has met a rigorous third-party standard in curriculum delivery and program administration. Experienced instructors with subject-matter expertise can become IREC certified. While an IREC credential does not guarantee that a training program or instructor is better than their uncredentialed competition, it definitely means that the credential holder meets industry-developed standards.

Finding a Job

Amidst the considerations of credentialing and training, it is helpful to know what jobs might be available. If you are interested in a solar manufacturing job, for example, the number of opportunities will be heavily dependent upon location. Visit the Solar Foundation at solarfoundation.org to view its Solar States Job Map, which illustrates the current number and types of solar jobs within each state.

If you have enough experience to look for a job, focus some of your energy on networking. Over half of the solar firms in the United States rely on word-of-mouth and referrals for finding candidates. Let people in your social and professional circles know what you are looking for. If you have friends in the solar industry, seek their help in finding your position. Even if they are in another state, they may be able to link you up with professionals in your area. Since the industry is still relatively small, solar professionals tend to network extensively across the country. These professional relationships can be huge assets in your job search.

If you don’t know anyone in the industry, it is important to start meeting a few. Consider these approaches:

Contact area professionals. Cold-calling strangers can be difficult, but people tend to be pretty open if you ask them for advice rather than a job. You can find local installers using NABCEP’s database of certified professionals, through state energy offices, or with a Web search. Research each company’s website, including job postings. If no one in your area is hiring, contact some of the installation companies and ask about what they look for in an employee. Remember that their time is valuable, so keep the call as short as possible. Another approach may be to contact a trade association, such as a local Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA, seia.org) or American Solar Energy Association (ASES, ases.org) chapter. Installers may also be found through solarreviews.com and findsolar.com.

Attend networking events. Many organizations and communities organize energy fairs or expositions. These are great opportunities to meet local professionals. Again, many companies are there to sell systems to the public, so respect their time. See whether there are any “green drinks” social events in your area, where individuals interested in sustainability gather to talk shop and network.

Social networking. Online social networking is a supplement—not a substitute—to building professional networks. Activity on social networking sites can help keep you abreast of developments and opportunities in your local industry. Social networks can also help you obtain some visibility, though you’ll want to be sure that anything you post is beneficial and not an annoyance or a liability as you further your career.

Some companies—especially the larger ones—utilize online job postings. You may find it useful to scan online job boards such as those at Home Power, SolarPro, SEIA, and ASES

Finally, you may find that a great investment in a solar job is to design and install a system at your home. You’ll learn some nuances of system installation and operation, accelerate your learning, and gain hands-on experience that is critical for any role you might take in the solar industry.

Access

Vaughan Woodruff is a NABCEP-certified solar heating installer and trainer based in Pittsfield, Maine. Vaughan has been intimately involved with SITN, IREC, and NABCEP in various capacities.

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