It seems like every year brings a new normal to the U.S. solar industry. The industry is dynamic, full of business innovation, and often hard to predict. However, two general trends have emerged over the past few years:
- We consistently outperform our installed capacity projections
- We often under-perform when it comes to new job creation
Unfortunately, many job seekers make assumptions about the first trend that do not match the reality of the second. Before we jump into strategies for pursuing professional development, it may be helpful to discuss why we aren’t seeing a solar employment boom. First, don’t fret too much. Employment in the industry is growing. We are a new industry with a lot more room to grow and have the potential to hire hundreds of thousands of new employees in the United States alone. Currently though, there are two major challenges with creating new jobs.
The first is that many licensed tradesmen and women have been working in the solar industry to pick up work because of a faltering residential and commercial building sector. This does not stimulate a lot of new hiring but rather puts pressure on existing professional to tool-up for solar. This is, by all accounts, a good thing. It just doesn’t result in a lot of new hiring.
Second, we are in an affordability race with traditional sources of energy. This race is occurring in a patchwork landscape of utility and state incentives with often uncertain terms and time frames. This puts a lot of downward pressure on labor costs and makes it difficult for long-term business planning. That is not to say that solid growth scenarios do not exist. It does mean, however, that the solar job seeker needs to know the market and choose a career path with solid prospects.
Having helped more than 1,000 people get tooled-up in solar over the last 5 years, folks at Minnesota Renewable Energy Association (MREA) have assembled a few strategies that will help you get a handle on the big picture and make the best on your investment in training:
1. Know The Market Where You Plan to Work
Do you live in a good solar market? If not, do you plan on following the job? You can make it in an emerging market but it takes planning, professionalism, partnership and grit. The economics of solar can sell, but new markets require a lot of customer education. Nothing ruins a new market faster than shoddy work. If you plan on entering a new market, invest in technical sales training. There is a lot of opportunity for a local electrical contractor to add solar to his or her suite of services. A good sales professional can help do just that. And, a journeyman or master electrician with years of local experience is a great candidate for North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) PV Installer Certification. We’ve found that combining these two credentials is the best assurance for quality.
2. Build On The Skills You Have
Are you an electrician? NABCEP PV Installer Certification will get you into the solar game. Do you have sales experience in a technical field? Maybe an electrical supply house? NABCEP PV Technical Sales Certification will help prepare you for the rapidly changing PV marketplace. Are you pursuing a degree in electrical technology or engineering? Maybe you already work at a utility? Utilities are dipping their toes in the solar market, and it’s only a matter of time before they jump in. Having transferable skills with a solar emphasis is a good strategy for maintaining employment in the volatile solar industry.
3. Ask A Lot Of Your Training Program
Discount lectures in the local hotel conference room with a pretty letter of completion will not cut it in the solar industry. Search for training programs that have accreditation Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC or ANSI/IREC accreditation are the gold standards). Instructors should have depth of experience and training programs that have a breadth and depth of instructors. Look for a solid track record in training with continued support for alumni through professional networks and related market development activities. Most importantly, look for training that leads you toward industry certification.
4. Get Work Experience (Whatever It Takes)
There is no substitute for experience in the solar industry. Enough said.
5. Don’t Be A Robot
No matter what part of the solar industry you are working in, you need to be an educator. It may surprise you, but solar market growth is becoming a less a technical challenge and more a social one. To sustain current levels of growth, we will need educated customers, jurisdictional authorities, policy makers, realtors and lending institutions, as well as others. The market will demand fluent, persuasive, knowledgeable and personable solar professionals. If you plan on getting into the solar industry to keep your head down and fasten modules to racks, you will most likely be replaced by a robot — and, nobody wants that to happen to you.