The booming renewable energy industry is not only helping the world transition away from fossil fuels, it’s also providing job opportunities for people who are in most need of them.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in May awarded $10 Million to 10 different projects through its Solar Training and Education for Professionals (STEP) program, which was created to help meet the solar industry’s growing demand for well-qualified, highly skilled installers and other industry-related professionals.
Image: Transitioning veterans at Fort Carson in Colorado receive hands on experience working with solar panels in the base’s first Solar Ready Vets cohort. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.
Solar jobs in the U.S. are growing eight to ten times faster than jobs in the overall economy, mostly due to the falling costs of the technology and the extension of tax credits available to help fund projects. This winter the industry announced that there were more than 1 million solar installations in the country today and in just two years that number will double to 2 million.
Solar for Vets
One sector of the workforce DOE hopes to boost is military veterans. As part of the STEP program, the Solar Foundation (TSF), known for its National Solar Jobs Census, was awarded just shy of $2 million to become the national administrator for the Solar Ready Vets program. TSF will work with training institutions at ten military bases to train more than 2,500 transitioning military service members and veterans for jobs in the solar energy industry. The program allows exiting military personnel to pursue civilian job training, employment skills training, apprenticeships and internships up to 6 months prior to their separation date.
Oil and Gas Workers To Wind Installation Technicians
To meet the groundswell of demand from potential wind turbine technicians, one UK-based oil and gas training company is now offering wind training courses that are Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) approved. HTL Training Services, based in Northumberland, announced in May that it had begun offering the MJI 31 and MJI 32 Wind Turbine Bolted Connections Course, its first dedicated training course for the renewable energy industry.
“At the last rough count there were 79 million bolted connections in the wind industry,” said Andy Elrod, Lead Technical Trainer. He added: “And you've got this huge pool of manpower from the oil and gas industry that have got a very, very high skill set…. who are able to work in challenging, robust conditions. You've got a ready-made workforce for the wind industry right there.”
Image: HTL Services, a traditional oil and gas training organization is now offering a MJI 32 Wind Turbine Bolted Connections Course. Credit: HTL Services.
Elrod, who came from the oil and gas sector himself, said that HTL decided to offer its first dedicated renewable energy course because of the demand for it. “We're seeing a lot of interest in renewables now especially coming [from people who want] to do the more technical, more specialist bolting solutions on a wind turbine,” he said.
Elrod said the MJI 31 and 32 for wind course is “aimed at new entrants or people transferring skills.”
After technicians complete the 2.5-day course and return to work in the field, they can come back to HTL to take Technical Competence Validation Tests, TMJI 31 and TMJI 32, said Bob Fogerty, Director of Training at HTL. If they pass that test, the certification they receive is good for 3 years.
HTL Training Services’ entrance in the wind industry is a clear reflection of the momentum that renewables have in the global market. “This was a natural progression,” said Fogerty.
Coal and Oil Workers to Solar Installers
According to Richard Lawrence, Executive Director of the North American Board of Certified Energy Professionals (NABCEP), there are some basic similarities between working in the oil or coal industries and installing solar.
“One of the things solar installation requires is the same sort of mindset that someone working in the coal or oil industry might have, which is being out in the elements, being able to use tools and putting in a hard day’s work in the field,” he said.
NABCEP provides testing and qualification services to installers who have completed classroom and on-the-job training. The organization also received DOE money (just over U.S. $1M) to develop new industry-validated personnel certifications for individuals working in PV operations and maintenance and mid-scale PV system design and installation.
Lawrence said that having field work experience is a huge benefit for someone transitioning from a job in the fossil energy industry to the renewable energy industry. “That's one of the things that, in talking to employers, is one of the hardest things to translate from the training environment into the real world,” he said. “In the classroom you can learn some of the basics and theory but rarely do trainees understand what it means to work on a roof all day.”
He said that technicians in the coal or oil industry who understand tough conditions will have an advantage as solar workers. “That will treat them well in the solar industry.”
The Power+ Initiative
Recognizing that coal workers are losing their jobs, the Obama Administration in 2015 launched the Power Plus (Power+) initiative and set aside $38 Million to fund it. The three-year program has so far released about $12M according to Byron Byron Zuidema, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). That leaves about $26M still available for communities who are being hit hard by coal’s downturn. The program allows communities with affected coal workers to apply for money to help retrain coal workers into other jobs.
“It really is up to the communities to identify what the growing jobs are,” said Zuidema.
He said that the renewable energy companies with job openings ought to be talking to communities through their state and local workforce boards and, at the very least, posting their job openings there. Further, they could be working on a more strategic level with communities to help them understand that renewable energy jobs are good, local jobs in a sector that is growing.
Zuideme said that these job training opportunities exist even beyond hard-hit coal communities.
“The employment and training organization funds every state in the union which then in turn sub-funds a variety of local organizations across the country to manage what we call American Job Centers,” he said. These job centers exist to help communities put people to work.
“Within the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act there is the whole concept of the development of sector strategies,” explained Zuidema.
Zuidema imagined a situation in which a local job board might say “’Ok, we see this emerging renewable energy sector we are aware there are employers, we're aware there are jobs and so we to work with them.’” At that point the board might decide to work with community colleges and training organizations and put together a network so they can find people looking for new job opportunities, do some assessments with them, determine if they need certain training or credentialing, get them trained and eventually get them a job in the renewable energy sector.
There are “frankly, hundreds of millions of dollars” available across the U.S. for retraining opportunities, according to Zuidema.
Leadership at growing renewable energy companies should get in touch with the American Job Centers (find one at www.DOL.ETA.gov, click on “Career Onestop” and type in a zip code) to make sure the boards are aware that renewable energy is a growing sector. The same is true for local boards, who should be on the lookout for industries that already need workers or will need them in the future.
Matching Markets to Job Opportunities
It’s important to keep in mind that the transition to renewables is slow and will take time. NABCEP’s Lawrence is quick to point out that it would be foolish to set up solar training programs for displaced coal workers in regions where there isn’t a strong solar market.
“Historically, coal-producing areas have had cheaper power prices and therefore less of a solar market,” he said, explaining “you certainly don't want to go train a bunch of coal workers in an area where power prices are still very low, there are no state incentives and there are no leasing companies doing [solar] installation work there.”
Image: Transitioning veterans at Camp Pendleton in California receive hands on experience working with solar panels in the base’s first Solar Ready Vets cohort. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.
On the other hand, we know that today almost all new energy capacity that is being built is wind and solar with a smaller fraction coming from gas. As coal plants retire or it becomes too expensive to retrofit them with mandated environmental controls, new capacity will need to come online and that capacity will likely be renewables. In May, traditionally coal-focused utility American Electric Power (AEP) put out a request for information (RFI) for up to 900 MW of wind and solar power capacity and specifically called out a desire to receive information on potential projects in Appalachia.
“If anybody is looking to develop solar training programs for these displaced workers, they do need to make sure that there is an industry there and there is a pretty good chance that that industry is going to be growing in that region,” cautioned Lawrence.
Perhaps Appalachian communities in partnership with a renewable energy company could work together to respond to AEPs RFI and use DOL grant money to train hundreds of workers in the field of renewable energy.
Zuidema summed it up nicely.
“It's really a matter of [renewable energy companies] showing up and saying ‘here we are, we understand you are in the business of finding people and making sure they have some training, we're in the business of hiring, let’s get together.’”
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