Shortfall in Funding for Solar Training

The U.S. solar industry is facing a shortfall in funding for solar worker training over the next four years of close to $70 million, suggests Doug Payne, the executive director of the San Jose-based SolarTech, which led the SolarTech Workforce Innovations Collaborative (SWIC). “We anticipate that there will be less and less federal and state funds available for solar job training, so there needs to be recognition in the industry that new business models for solar training need to emerge,” he says.

“Our SWIC program cut the cost of acquiring a trained solar worker in half – from an industry average of up to $30,000 per worker – and reduced the acquisition time from 90 days to 30 days,” says Payne. The SWIC project, which ran for four years until June of this year, was an integrated, systematic approach to talent acquisition by identifying, training and placing “the right people for the right jobs at the right time” to meet the specific needs of employers in Silicon Valley’s solar, energy efficiency, and electric vehicle industries. The program was funded through a $4 million California Green Innovations Challenge grant, involving three partners: the SolarTech trade association, based in San Jose; Foothill-De Anza Community College District, in Cupertino, Calif.; and NOVA Workforce Development, based in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Over the 18-month grant period, SWIC trained 255 unemployed professionals and, of those who completed the program, 61 percent achieved employment, according to Payne. While SWIC has since wound down, Payne will present a white paper on “Financing the Next Generation of Solar Workers,” at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council’s (IREC’s) Clean Energy Workforce Conference in November in Albany, N.Y. “We’ve worked up a variety of business models for funding the training of solar workers, although we could wind the SWIC back up,” Payne says.

The SWIC worked in conjunction with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP), of Clifton Park, N.J., IREC, of Latham, N.Y., and other organizations to help broaden the base of community colleges involved in solar training. NABCEP now has 300 community colleges, training institutions and other educational institutes credentialed, according to Kristine Reynolds, the applications administrator for the organization.

IREC is now the program administrator for a $4.5 million portion of the five-year U.S. DOE-funded Solar Installer Training Network (SITN), which falls under the DOE SunShot initiative. SITN was launched by DOE in 2009 “to address a critical need for high-quality, local, and accessible training in solar system design, installation, sales, and inspection” with a budget of $10 million.

IREC has particularly sought out community colleges to assist in solar education course building. One of these is Kennebec Valley Community College, of Fairfield, Maine, which was awarded a $1 million SITN grant to help train solar instructors in its region. SunShot also maintains a small fleet of training vehicles that seek to reach educators and code officials in more remote areas.

In June, IREC also released a series of “Best Practices Documents, a compendium of national curriculum models of solar training, education and workforce development curriculum for solar instructors” on a wide range of topics, including solar content coordination. These documents aid SITN’s nine regional institutional instructors in training educators.

For more on this topic, you can watch the roundtable discussion on solar training that we conducted last week at Solar Power International.  It’s called “Training for a Solar Job: What Do I Need to Know”

 

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Lead image: Solar power workers at a plant via Shutterstock.

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Charles W. Thurston is a journalist who specializes in renewable energy, from finance to technological processes. He has been active in the industry for over 25 years, living and working in locations ranging from Brazil to Papua New Guinea.

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