ALISSA JEAN SCHAFER September 14, 2017
“How can I get a job in solar?”
As I speak with groups and community members throughout our region about clean energy, this is by far one of the most frequently asked questions I hear, and for good reason! With headlines like “solar creates 1 out of every 50 jobs”, and the reported $154 billion in economic impact in 2016 (according to The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Job Census), it’s no surprise that the solar industry is catching the attention of job seekers. In an increasingly diverse industry, the solar industry is building a reputation for providing well-paying jobs in a rapidly expanding market. With 67 percent of these jobs not even requiring a bachelor’s degree, this means one thing for a lot of people: opportunity! According the Solar Foundation, the median wage is $26 an hour for solar installers, however the industry also includes a wide range of job types such as manufacturing, sales, project development, finance, and marketing, just to name a few. The solar industry has also become a great fit for military veterans, with veterans currently making up 9 percent of the solar workforce as opposed to 6 percent of the national total.
All of that sounds great, but the question remains: How can somebody break into the industry if they don’t already have a foot in the door somewhere or any “solar” experience? Here are some answers and insights I’ve gained from asking those same questions myself, talking with local solar companies, and diving into the data provided by The Solar Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy and Employment Report.
For starters, job seekers generally find that a lot of their existing job skills transfer well to the solar industry. On the installation side, for example, this is essentially construction work, so experience in areas related to building trades such as construction labor, contracting, permitting, structural engineering, and design tend to be great skills to have on the solar side of things. Given the nature of solar installations, roofing and electrical work are also helpful skills to have, and many solar contractors began as one or the other. Stemming from these local contractor roots, it’s interesting to note that about half of the solar installers currently working in the US are from small companies of 10 or fewer employees. This is especially impressive when you put that stat next to the fact that installation jobs still represent the majority of positions in the industry, totaling 53 percent of all solar jobs.
Interested in becoming an installer? Bill Johnson of Brilliant Harvest, a Florida based solar contractor, advises getting some hands on experience however is possible: “I would definitely recommend an internship or other job training, to include hands on work with actual equipment in the field. Solar power system installation is physically and mentally demanding work that takes time to learn to do well. Not everyone is cut out for it frankly; it’s hot, bright, and physical, in addition to being mentally complex.” This sentiment is echoed by all solar professionals I have spoken with: If you want to be in the industry, find a way to get your hands on some panels, get up on a roof, and see what actually goes into a solar installation! Research the solar contractors in your area (you can look up NABCEP certified contractors HERE as a start) and see who would be willing to take you on as an intern, apprentice, or even job shadow.
In addition to the building trades side of things, as the industry continues to grow, so do all the other employment needs, such as manufacturing, distribution, finance, research & development, and so on meaning that experience gained in other industries is often applicable and valuable in the solar industry as well. This reality means that job seekers’ resumes are often stronger than they may realize. Simply put, just because none of your previous work experience contains the word “solar” doesn’t mean that it’s not applicable. That being said, the solar industry does have its own technical language, and a myriad of complex and always changing regulations, technologies, policies, challenges, and opportunities that a newbie could find confusing and overwhelming. To get themselves up to speed, job seekers should adopt a proactive approach to learning the industry, networking, and adding relevant skills to their resume in whatever way they can. They can do this through courses, conferences, and good old-fashioned research.
“The solar industry is very much still in its infancy. We don’t expect most applicants to have a wide knowledge of solar but having some basic course work completed does help a lot with the learning curve once employed,” stated Tony Ramudo, Vice President and Co-Founder of Urban Solar Group, a solar contractor based in South Florida. “Here at Urban Solar Group, we look for attitude first. It’s important to have a positive attitude while learning a new trade.”
This advice is no different than what somebody may hear any time they want to switch industries in their career. There’s no secret sauce for solar jobs, but I will leave you with a couple special resources and tips.
First, I recommend checking out the brand new Solar Training Network, an initiative funded by the Department of Energy in collaboration with The Solar Foundation that aims to provide resources, job postings, and training opportunities.
Second, an ongoing trend at many solar conferences and trade shows is to include a “career fair” or similar networking event, often separate from the main conference in order to make the events more accessible. These are well-worth researching, especially if one happens to be scheduled in your area.
Lastly, it’s no secret that some states and local communities are more solar-friendly than others, so if you are serious about working in the field you may need to be open to relocating, working remotely (if this is an option), or perhaps joining advocacy and policy efforts to help bring more solar to your area. Yes, this is a long term effort that may not land you a job tomorrow, and it’s also a shameless plug to become a supporting member of the organization that I work with, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, but one of the main reasons I began working with this organization is that I realized good energy policy leads to more local jobs, and without good policy, the industry will never flourish.
So there you have it. I’d love to hear from others how they got started in the solar industry, and what advice they would offer job seekers. As the industry continues to mature, employment trends develop and change as well. None of us have a crystal ball, but based on the national stats we’ve seen over the last few years, I am optimistic that we will continue to move in a positive direction.
Alissa Jean Schafer is Solar Communications and Policy Manager for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, a regional non-profit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that work to address the impacts of global climate change and ensure clean, safe and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Alissa works and lives in South Florida and can be found on twitter at @alissajean and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org