Mind The Gap – Solar Jobs, Workforce Development 

Do you believe today’s high school graduates are prepared to secure America’s energy future?

A continued lack of vision for an integrated energy network has left us with a sizable gap, most notably in human resources.  America’s power grid needs an overhaul and renewables offer a sustainable solution to lower energy costs, improve resiliency through decentralization, and create equitable energy distribution. However, the US has been slow to implement the changes needed. To achieve this we will need a skilled and diverse workforce in every US county that will both build and maintain assets.

A Solution So Simple, Yet Challenging

Europe provides a fine example for retraining established trades or catering to fresh recruits. The region has taken an integrated approach to apprentice programs in renewables and EVs, building pathways for applied learning towards a university degree.  Innovative utilities and power electronics companies, with support from the government, are driving both education and deployment, with natural pathways to employment. There is a clear understanding that workforce development and sustainable corporate growth go hand in hand.

In contrast, in the USA, blue collar jobs in coal and O&G, have typically been sourced from unskilled labor forces which are taught in the field and in the mine after being hired.  Coincidentally, these skills were not transferable to other jobs and sectors. This was sustainable when these industries were growing and before the new generation of workers realized there are better and more importantly greener career paths. In 2022 these sectors continue to see reductions in their workforce as automation and digitalization are rapidly deployed to reduce costs.

Since solar has become cheaper than natural gas and coal, trade skills demand has outpaced workforce availability.  With multiple career pathways in a disruptive and emerging industry, the US has an opportunity to quickly incorporate lessons to build our own skilled workforce.

Schools STEM Change

Solar education is pivotal for the US energy transition and students are eager to learn. Over the past 30 years, school districts around the country have largely phased out vocational classes in lieu of STEM only courses. More emphasis is placed on students achieving four year college degrees, while blue collar careers are not properly encouraged at the middle or high school levels. These types of jobs are needed and offer students alternative careers without student debt. The call for more vocational, alternative learning methods, is steadily growing, spurring educators to consider new options for their students to achieve career readiness in emerging industries with large growth opportunities.

Solar Pioneers of Del Valle

A case for success and scale is certainly the Solar Pioneers of Del Valle. The community-based program was led by Solar Austin quickly gained traction when Del Valle ISD partnered with community leaders, solar experts, teachers, and students to design a learning lab at their Opportunity Center.

Workforce development is not a regional issue when it comes to new energy careers. However, schools need curriculum, subject matter experts to “train the trainers,” and then liaisons between students and employers. A challenge multiplier is the fact that the Department of Labor has yet to designate an apprentice program for solar.

Del Valle illustrates an opportunity to learn by doing. Local leaders from NATiVE Solar and Solar Austin joined with community volunteers to drive success, until state or federal funding for solar jobs can formalize efforts. To scale beyond regional initiatives, state/federal funding for equipment, teacher salaries, scholarships, and administrators is urgently needed.

Ways to Engage and Educate

Schools are a gateway, but what about those that aren’t enrolled in public schools?

The Children’s Haven new solar array was installed by volunteers in the heart of East Austin and offered a one-day solar camp to educate the community. Green Careers Dallas takes on an additional challenge by offering support for the unique hurdles of criminal records while removing the cost burdens of training, certifications, and transportation.

Community engagement through town hall meetings, advocacy groups, trade organizations and solar installers offer support and access to reliable information. The recent shift towards remote and virtual workforces has created an opportunity to transition and potentially a breakthrough in delivery of dynamic content and curriculum, with all the elements of hands-on and classroom learning.

A Virtual Solution

The mission to integrate new curriculum, experimental education facility and innovative learning platform has an elegant solution. Augmented and Virtual (AR/VR) Reality are ways to engage the next generation of trainees and modernize tech training. The US Air Force illustrates a great use case for recruiting and training with a VR system coordinated by artificial intelligence. Austin also offers a few early adopters with Interplay Learning and Froliq.

Furthermore, remote access to energy assets is easily interfaced with a smartphone that instantly augments the user experience with troubleshooting tools as demonstrated by 60 Hertz Energy. Adoption of digital platforms in schools, construction and utilities will need to be abrupt, but offer immediate payback with increased energy efficiency.

Notwithstanding hands on learning labs, students can supplement learning and gain practical skills with virtual learning. Many volunteers who want to participate in the program may struggle to travel through Texas to teach the different classes across school districts. Lectures recorded by experts on emerging topics are important for students and need timely delivery methods.  Additionally, the students could use custom VR “games” to practice their skills before touching live circuits. This could save time in the classroom, promote safety, and allow students more opportunities to practice.

Leveraging AR/VR would allow for collaboration and development of streamlined sharing between stakeholders. The curriculum and technology can be devised by a group of experts and then implemented with less work from local schools. Since it would be theoretically easier to implement the program, more schools may consider providing it for their students.

The mission and goal is to accelerate solar education to place students in well-paying jobs, help them avoid the financial burdens of student loans, and create more quality jobs for energy security and resilience.