Solar job market is hotter than ever

Wiring is installed as part of a solar installation.
Wiring is installed as part of a solar installation.

Solar jobs are hotter than a Keys summer.

The median wage in the United States is $17.09 per hour. Why is that of interest? Because a relatively new industry, solar installation, boasts of a median wage of $21 an hour, a figure that is climbing steadily.

According to the Solar Foundation, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, wages for those employed in the solar industry rose by 5 percent in just two years while all other jobs saw only slightly more than a 2 percent increase. Many in the service industry in the Keys haven’t seen their wages increase at all during that period.

This trend for solar will continue because the number of jobs in the industry is skyrocketing.

According to the Solar Foundation, “The annual National Solar Jobs Census shows that the U.S. solar industry today employs 208,859 people, having added 35,052 in 2015 alone. This is a 20 percent increase in job growth compared to the overall national employment growth of 1.7 percent.”

Middle Keys solar installation company SALT Service confirmed that the opportunities for trained installers and sale staff have exploded.

“We just hired one person and have three more openings,” said Bob Williams, SALT’s founder and vice president. “It’s a particularly good opportunity for someone local because it’s hard for us to bring people down because of the high rents in the Keys.”

Williams confirmed that solar jobs pay more than other local trades.

“The talent in the Keys is there but people need training,” he said.

Even at such competitive wages, employers nationwide report difficulty in finding suitable workers. According to the foundation’s census, about one in five employers report that it is “very difficult” to find qualified employees. What makes it a challenge in the Keys is that none of the local educational institutions offer training in this highly competitive field.

People looking to train for solar jobs, however, can find opportunities in both South Florida and online. The website of the Solar Education Association of the Florida Keys (www.seaflkeys.com) lists, on its “training” page, a number of organizations that provide opportunities to learn the skills necessary to design and install solar panels, solar hot water and even solar heating for swimming pools. SEA provides Internet links for all the training organizations.

The Solar Foundation itself has been selected to serve as the national administrator of the Solar Training Network, a major new program designed to grow the U.S. solar workforce. On its website, www.solartrainingusa.org/, the group provides a national directory of solar training providers as well as a national solar company directory for job seekers.

A little closer to home is Fort Lauderdale-based U.S. Solar Institute (USSI). The company is a Florida Department of Education-licensed solar training vocational college with national affiliations. USSI says that it provides hands-on, in-person advanced solar training classes quarterly plus offers a growing list of online courses. The main campus is in Fort Lauderdale and can be reached by calling (954) 236-4577 or visiting www.USSolarInstitute.com.

Solar Energy International (www.solarenergy.org/) delivers a broad range of online courses in both English and Spanish, ranging from the general (solar electric design and installation) to the very complex (advanced PV multimode and microgrid design (battery-based). SEI’s courses also include programs in solar business and sales. The internet-based programs’ costs vary but many courses are around $500.

Learn on campus

Everglades University, with five campuses in Florida, has made the leap into solar. On its website — www.evergladesuniversity.edu/ — it says they offer undergraduate degrees in alternative and renewable energy management as well as environmental policy and management. The school even provides real-time reporting on what its 25 kilowatts of solar panels at the Sarasota campus are producing at any given moment.

Aurora, Colo.,-based Ecotech provides an on-campus experience for students who want to have more hands-on training. The school indicates that its degree program trains students to install, operate and repair solar systems.

“Solar courses also include skill development in troubleshooting, maintaining, and repairing photovoltaic equipment, including how to perform maintenance, repair, or replace solar panel parts to correct problems,” its website — www.ecotechinstitute.com/ — indicates.

In all cases, prospective students should check these institutions carefully and speak with graduates about the quality of the education and the opportunities they provide.

While it’s true that there are few jobs for solar installers in the Keys right now, that is changing rapidly as the state becomes more solar-friendly and interest in clean energy grows. New financing options for solar panel installations are becoming available every day and the U.S. government still offers a very generous tax credit for those putting solar panels on individual homes. That means that more people will be installing solar and will need the services of qualified, trained installers.

As the economy shifts from a dependence on fossil fuels to renewable energy, young people who want to make a good living with a guaranteed future should investigate the rapidly expanding field of solar installation.