This blog was guest authored by Shirlondra Brooks, Elevate’s Program Manager of Workforce Development.
“Workforce development.” It’s a term we’ve been hearing proposed as a solution to the economic damage that COVID-19 has had on our labor market. In the past year, more than two out of five households reported a loss of a job and wages, often in industries like food service, retail, and hospitality. These changes have led to more people looking to reskill and upskill in order to access growing and in-demand careers like solar.
Solar and other clean energy industry careers have experienced rapid growth in the past decade. Solar is one of the fastest growing job markets, and offers a range of careers including engineering, manufacturing, construction, and installation. The largest growth in the solar industry is expected to be in solar installation, including photovoltaic installers, electricians, and roofers.
Workforce development programs can help address the skills gap for people who are interested in a new career in the solar industry but need to build the skills. However, these programs are much more complex and dynamic than many people may realize when they propose workforce development as a solution. Solar technology is rapidly evolving, and workforce programs need to constantly stay up to date on the latest technology to remain relevant. Additionally, it can be difficult to secure adequate funding for programs to employ and retain experienced program staff and provide adequate resources for the programs.
Navigating the complexities of workforce development programs is challenging. But taking on that challenge is a necessity to help people access good training with industry-recognized credentials that leads to good jobs with family-sustaining wages.
What is a Good Job in the Clean Energy Space?
The purpose of a good workforce development program is not just to provide training – it’s to provide training that leads to a good job. So what does a good job look like in the clean energy space?
We consider a good job – in any industry – to be a job that provides more than just a “livable wage.” A good job should offer family-sustaining wages, opportunities for career advancement, and an affordable benefits package that includes healthcare insurance, vacation, and a retirement plan. A good job should also keep employees safe by setting and following guidelines for workplace safety.
Solar installer and construction jobs are usually categorized as non-traditional – schedules are not 9-5 and the job site locations can vary from week to week. Solar photovoltaic installers were recognized as a federal occupational category only in 2010, and existing data shows that pay ranges from $11.50 to $21.00 per hour.
As the economy continues to improve after COVID-19 and job seekers become more confident in securing solar employment opportunities that reflects their skill set and credentials, employers must design competitive benefits packages to match and retain top talent. At the same time, conversations around workforce development need to recognize and reflect the unique nature of these roles and emphasize jobs with good pay and benefits as a result of their training and support services.
Workforce Development that Cultivates Good Jobs
At Elevate, we provide workforce and small business development programs that help people reskill and upskill to a career in solar. Part of helping our students get good jobs is preparing them for long-term success as their professional goals and employment opportunities evolve.
A foundational part of the programs is a partnership with City Colleges of Chicago to provide students with access to foundational courses and certifications needed to advance in the solar energy space. Upon successful completion of Elevate’s Solar Jobs Training Program, graduates can sit for their North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) certification, which is an industry-recognized credential and can help advance a career in solar. Graduates also have access to advanced training depending on their career path, including customer service and retail sales through the nationally recognized NABCEP Photovoltaic Technical Sales certification.
Another key component of Elevate’s workforce development programs is learning from the feedback of our past and present students. We have modified workshops using topics that students have identified as barriers to employment including financial literacy, money management, childcare, and mental health based on student feedback.
We also developed a Job Club to create a space for sharing job leads and employment information. Job Club convenes current students, past graduates, partner organizations and potential employers to discuss employment opportunities, challenges, and successes. This space fosters an ongoing network of solar industry professionals that the students can tap into whenever they need it.
What’s Next for Workforce Development and Good Jobs?
Workforce development programs have enormous potential to bring good jobs to an evolving workforce as we transition to clean energy. We want to center workforce development in conversations about clean energy, so that programs are given the necessary funding and resources to develop good jobs for their graduates.
Elevate continues to provide assistance to help individuals develop their career path in solar through access to advanced credentials and identifying the specialized skills and additional training needed to fulfil students’ aspirations.