What Training is Most Valuable if You Want a Career in Solar?
We say it all the time: It pays to go solar. Usually we’re referring to the return in utility bill savings and rebates on a new residential solar installation. But of course there’s another, more literal, way that solar energy can pay you — with a job in photovoltaics.
As residential solar adoption rates have continued apace (reaching a record 135,000 installs in the first half of 2015), the industry behind those installations has ballooned in tandem. In fact, while other businesses were still licking their recessional wounds, solar energy saw a rate of growth nearly 20 times that of the U.S. economy at large.
Solar energy itself is a broad category that spans multiple roles — jobs in manufacturing and installation, sales, and project development, as well as research and development positions in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field. Distribution breaks down as you’d expect, with the most jobs available in skilled labor positions like installations and manufacturing. In fact, experienced installers are so sought-after that the number of positions has risen around 120 percent since 2010, in step with installation trends across the US.
Heightened interest in solar means that manufacturers and, particularly, installers, have added huge numbers to their ranks. Installation specialists now represent the bulk of the solar field, with more than twice as many jobs as any other role. But actually, just what qualifies a PV installer is a matter of some contention amongst solar professionals. Legally, there’s no official licensing process for specialists, and like most construction positions, the most valuable training occurs day-to-day on the jobsite.
The demand for solar installers has spurred a debate: Should installation technicians have to meet the same requirements as certified electricians? As it stands now, most installers get by without a thorough electrical background — that work is subcontracted out to licensed electricians with expertise in residential or commercial setups. But at its core, grid-connected solar power is an electrical process, and some lawmakers are concerned that only a certified electrician has the know-how to safely assemble and mount solar panels.
The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) hopes to resolve the issue once and for all by offering a PV installation certification process that includes an exam and 40 hours of on-the-job training. Even though it’s not required, getting certified is a smart idea — at some point, adoption rates will likely flatten, meaning that a certificate may make the difference between sink or swim in a more competitive market.
Although more and more homes are opting for solar power, the technology in its current iteration isn’t perfect — for instance, modern solar cells only clock an efficiency of around 20 to 25 percent. While that may be annoying for residents looking to go off the grid, it’s great news for those hungry to kick off a career in solar research. The development of more advanced cells and batteries should keep solar and STEM buoyant for some time to come.
Additionally, with big tech companies battling one another to develop ever more high-tech batteries, it’s highly likely that more firms will follow suit, meaning the next few years should be pretty busy for scientists and technicians who want to dive into solar specialization. Of course, research positions are always inhibited by funding and costs, so jobs here will only continue to grow if there is an eager public buying up more advanced goods.
However, the tech side of solar is truly propelled by engineering. The engineer’s hand is visible in every aspect of solar development, from the smallest elements — the semiconductors and metals, the electrical components and systems — to large, global details like the industrial and mechanical manufacturing and equipment. And yet, there is a huge dearth of qualified engineers. In fact, an astounding 53 percent of solar firms report difficulty hiring for these roles.
It’s not totally surprising, considering the level of training that engineering requires — usually a high-level degree like a master’s or doctorate — and occasionally, licensure such as a professional engineering license issued by a state licensing board. Obtaining a PE license is no small feat, either, requiring two years as an engineering intern, four years of on-the-job experience supervised by a professional engineer, and successful completion the Principles and Practice of Engineering Exam.
But for those not interested in shouldering several years’ worth of student loans and testing fees, there are entry points into solar engineering that don’t necessarily require an advanced degree. Engineering technicians, who assist lead engineers, need only to have obtained an associate’s degree, although these roles do usually come with a work-history requirement, necessitating familiarity with data-analysis and manufacturing softwares and business practices.
Even as the dust begins to settle from the solar energy shakeup, the employment outlook should be pretty strong for those looking to go “green-collar.” The Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee reports that solar historically creates more jobs per megawatt than any other energy field. So, for professionals transitioning into the industry, the future may be very bright indeed.