By Grainger Editorial Staff 9/9/22
Third of a skilled trades exploration series: solar photovoltaic installer
America’s “Great Resignation,” in which millions of American workers have left their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic in hopes of finding something better, continued to accelerate almost 18 months after the pandemic began. More people quit their jobs in November 2021 than in any month in the last 20 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
This shift created worker shortages across many industries, perhaps none more notable than in skilled trades. An analysis of job postings by the staffing firm PeopleReady found that openings in skilled trades increased 50% from before the pandemic to spring 2021.
What does it take to qualify for these plentiful careers in skilled trades, what is the work like and how much can you get paid? Our series, The Job You Want, helps answer these questions.
Adoption of solar power is expected to accelerate rapidly over the next 30 years. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says 3% of electric power in the U.S. came from solar in 2020; that is predicted to more than quadruple to 14% by 2035 and continue to grow.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, commonly found in rooftop panels, have nearly doubled in efficiency since the 1980s. An ongoing federal tax credit of up to 26% was boosted to 30% with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, with additional incentives for some projects that could push it as high as 60%.
All this helps lead to a sterling job outlook for solar PV installers. In 2021, the solar industry supported more than a quarter-million jobs and grew by more than 9% from 2020, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 52% job growth in the field between 2020 and 2030, far exceeding the national average of 8%.
A high school diploma is the primary foundation for getting into this field. From there, a variety of paths can bring you into the career.
Some technical colleges offer certificate courses or course programs in solar PV installation or associate degrees with titles like Renewable Energy Technician or Solar Energy Technology. Training is also available from independent organizations. The North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, a nationally recognized certification program for PV installers, provides a training directory to locate courses and programs for varying levels of expertise.
But other solar professionals take even more winding paths. Matt McCarthy is a foreman and John Ball is an installer with Solar Landscape, a New Jersey firm specializing in commercial and community solar installations. Each of them has a bachelor’s degree from a four-year university, but both found that office life just wasn’t for them. So, with a background in a variety of manual labor roles, they found their way into the field. Much of their learning has been on the job.
Matt, who started with Solar Landscape in 2013, said being a generalist can be more helpful than specific solar training.
“Some of people who adapt best are landscapers and roofers who don’t have formal training, but they are comfortable on a roof when it’s 90 degrees or 9 degrees,” he said.
Solar Landscape does have its own training program that partners with national leaders in workforce development to introduce people to careers as a solar installer, however, and many companies help their installers get training or certification.
Every state has different licensing requirements for PV installers and the IREC tracks them. Some states, such as Idaho, have a specialized PV installer license. Others require some form of an electrician’s or contractor’s license; still others have no requirements whatsoever. Indiana and Kansas are among the states that leave decisions to municipalities.
It’s also important to check which states offer reciprocity for their licenses, and whether that is automatic or requires some other action. About two-thirds of the 50 states (plus District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) offer some level of reciprocity.
Certifications are voluntary and primarily established in the U.S. by NABCEP. There are eight different certifications; PV Installation Professional (PVIP) is the primary offering. To be eligible for that certification exam, a candidate must meet certain levels of experience and education and agree to the NABCEP Code of Ethics, among other pre-requisites.
The time commitment, curriculum and costs for training and certification can vary significantly. A single, three-credit-hour class on PV installation at a community or technical college can cost less than $300. Other certificate programs can run $2,000-3,000 and associate degree programs run upwards of $10,000. As with any type of post-secondary education, it makes sense to investigate opportunities for financial aid or reimbursement.
To earn the PVIP certification, the application is $125 and the exam is $375. Other NABCEP certifications are similar. State licensing fees can run from less than $100 to a few hundred dollars.
The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.