Education-Industry Partnerships Could Save Solar Companies Millions of Dollars
Tom Lombardo posted on June 05, 2017 |

In the year 2016, the solar power industry created more than 51,000 American jobs. That number could be significantly higher if more people had the proper education, according to a study by the Solar Training Network. The research report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative, shows that 84% of solar installers had trouble filling installer positions, largely due to a lack of qualified applicants. Two-thirds of the companies indicated that the difficulty in finding capable employees has cost them money and restricted their opportunities for growth.

 


Education Improves the Bottom Line

Due to the shortage of educated personnel, employers are forced to hire installers with little to no experience or training in the field, often resulting in improperly installed arrays that require one or more callbacks for repair or reinstallation. According to the report, if training can prevent even one percent of these callbacks, the industry could save more than ten millions dollars a year.

 

Solar companies frequently develop and deliver their own in-house training in order to bring new hires up-to-speed. Those who are willing to do so have demonstrated that it's worth the money, as the investment in education results in lower installation costs.


Not Just Technical Skills

It's obvious that workers in the solar industry need specific training in electricity, construction, and PV installation, but companies also need installers to have general-purpose skills like problem-solving, logical reasoning, leadership, communication, lifelong learning, and work ethic. (Side note: I wish people would stop referring to these as "soft skills." They're much harder to learn and practice than technical details and procedures.) Installation is not a cookbook procedure, as every situation presents its own unique variations. Solar installers - especially those in charge of the installation - need to communicate with customers, address aesthetics, and manage personnel. That's why college degrees, even those in career and technical fields, include courses in writing, speech, psychology, logic, and yes, even art. (You think looks don't matter? Think again - pre-orders for Tesla's pretty-but-pricey solar tiles  have gone through the roof.)

 

 

Which Comes First: Training or Experience?

The study suggests that employers prefer entry-level candidates with some relevant training, but they aren't necessarily looking for someone with a degree or a formal certificate - at least not at first. Many companies will hire people who just have a basic understanding of electrical concepts and construction techniques. Once they're in the door, however, employees with degrees and certificates are the ones who get promoted to higher level positions that earn better salaries. On the surface that seems like a pragmatic response to the lack of qualified entry-level candidates, but I wonder if it's something deeper.

 

(Warning: I'm going off on a bit of a tangent, but please bear with me - there's a point to it.)

 

After thirteen years of teaching engineering and technology, I decided to pursue a doctorate in education. In one of my first courses, a professor boldly stated that high school graduates should spend ten years in the workforce before attempting college. At first, I was taken aback by his comment, but the more classes I took, the more I understood where he was coming from.

 

Many of my classmates were like me - somewhat mature adults with several years of teaching experience looking to improve our techniques - while others were in their early 20s, having gone straight from high school to college and then graduate school. As we learned about modern educational theories and instructional methods, those of us with teaching backgrounds were able to put those ideas into context, giving us a much deeper understanding of the concepts and allowing us to apply them in real-world scenarios. The "newbies," on the other hand, were struggling to find hooks on which to hang this new information, and were frequently unable to apply the content in practical applications. The same holds true for technical workshops that I've attended: my field experience allowed me to get a more thorough grasp of the concepts being presented.

 

I see the same thing in my own classroom: students with some industrial experience can usually apply newly-learned engineering and technological principles significantly better than those with no background at all. This is supported by evidence, by the way. Educational research shows that practice should be learned before theory, not after; traditional education does it backward. (Why the disconnect between educational research and practice? That's a different rant altogether. Don't get me started.)

 

Engineering students: this is the real benefit of co-ops and internships. They're promoted as ways to earn money while in school, get a foot in the door with potential employers, and get a head start with on-the-job training, but the most significant - and rarely stated - benefit is that the experience gives you some context in which to view your coursework. You'll be a better engineering student and, in turn, a better engineer, if you have career-related work experience before or during your educational pursuits.

 

 

Educational and Industrial Partnerships

Education providers and renewable energy companies need to develop partnerships to ensure that workers have appropriate entry-level knowledge and competence, including basic technical proficiency as well as critical thinking, problem-solving, and other "general employability" skills. Collaborations between academia and industry should also lead to continuing education opportunities for employees, delivering advanced content at a time when the learners have enough experience to gain a deeper understanding of the coursework and how it applies to the industry.

 

 

Energy and education are two industries that have developed and matured over the past 150 years or so. Both are undergoing significant, much-needed transformations, and both will benefit by working together on those changes. Strength comes not from rigidity, but from adaptability. It's time for both fields to move forward … together.

Images courtesy of Solar Hiring and Training Insights 2017, The Solar Foundation, available at SolarTrainingUSA.org

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