Advancing Apprenticeship Pathways to Solar Careers Op-Ed Explainer

By Megan Howes

Potential apprentices may seek to become solar installers like the two workers shown here.

Potential apprentices may seek to become solar installers like the two workers shown here. (Credit: South_agency)

Unprecedented investments in clean energy infrastructure are projected to more than double the size of the solar workforce over the next decade.1

As the industry prepares for a period of accelerated growth, recruiting and hiring qualified workers is a priority and a challenge for employers nationwide. Registered Apprenticeship Programs (RAPs) can help address critical workforce challenges while establishing inclusive pathways to family- and community-sustaining solar careers.

In the “National Solar Jobs Census 2021,” published by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC), the vast majority (89%) of solar employers reported that it was “somewhat” or “very” difficult to fill jobs, citing the small applicant pool as well as candidates’ lack of experience, training or technical skills.2 Hiring difficulties are most pronounced for installation, construction and electrician roles.

At this pivotal moment for the solar industry, RAPs present an opportunity to develop, scale and sustain the necessary pipeline of well-trained technical talent.

While apprenticeships haven’t been widely used by solar employers, the Inflation Reduction Act changes the training landscape by tying substantial tax credits to new apprenticeship and labor provisions.

Renewable energy projects greater than 1 MW breaking ground this year must have at least 12.5% of construction labor hours provided by registered apprentices to receive the full value of credits.3 This ramps up to 15% in 2024.

What Is a RAP?

A RAP is a customizable, industry-driven training model validated by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) or a state apprenticeship agency. Providing comprehensive training in a given occupation and a clearly defined, high-quality career pathway, RAPs are widely recognized as a key strategy to develop and retain a skilled workforce — particularly across solar-adjacent construction and electrical industries.

Importantly, a registered apprenticeship is a paid job from day one. Apprentices produce high-quality work under the guidance of a mentor and receive related instruction to support job-related skills and knowledge. Apprentices earn increasing wages as they gain experience and proficiency, and upon completion, are issued a nationally recognized certification — the industry equivalent of a college degree.

This “earn while you learn” model makes RAPs an effective recruitment tool, especially for young and transitional workers, veterans (who can receive GI Bill benefits to participate), and other diverse candidates.

Custom-developing a workforce through RAPs offers substantial advantages to employers, such as reduced turnover rates and increased productivity. There are several ways for solar companies to participate in or launch their own RAPs to tap into these benefits.

RAP Pathways to Solar Careers

While many employers choose to operate their own programs in-house, companies may also participate in RAPs sponsored by educational institutions, community-based organizations, industry associations, or joint labor-management programs (i.e., union programs). Many joint programs across electrical and building trades are incorporating solar content into their apprenticeship curricula.

RAPs for solar-industry-specific occupations are currently limited, as the DOL does not recognize the occupation of “solar installer” — or any solar-specific occupation — as “apprenticeable.” However, several existing occupations can be leveraged and modified to meet a company’s needs.

In recent years, various RAP models have been successfully implemented by solar employers to develop craft talent.

For example, the “construction craft laborer” occupation, with a two-year work process schedule approved by DOL, is the occupation most commonly adapted to train solar installers. John A. Logan College in Illinois leads a RAP using this occupation, where apprentices learn site preparation, racking installation and module mounting, among other construction-related job tasks.4

Last year, the commercial and utility-scale renewable energy company Wanzek also launched a registered apprenticeship program using the “construction craft laborer” occupation. Apprentices complete 4,000 hours of on-the-job training under 1:1 supervision from a journey-level mentor, supplemented by 360 hours of classroom-based related technical instruction.5

The program was designed to cultivate a pipeline of highly-trained and talented craft team members. Wanzek chose to run the apprenticeship fully in-house to customize the curriculum to meet and adapt to business needs.

“Wanzek started the CCL [Construction Craft Laborer] Apprenticeship Program to address the dire need for skilled craft within our workforce,” said Kendra Bailey, apprenticeship program manager at Wanzek. “The industry as a whole suffers from a large skills gap. What better way to work on closing that gap than to invest in our people and produce well rounded journey-level craftsmen out on our projects?”

Meanwhile, the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association partnered with the Florida Solar Energy Center and a coalition of employers to develop and launch the two-year Florida Solar Energy Apprenticeship Program, which will ensure that the state continues to produce highly qualified solar energy technicians.6

Florida is one of 29 U.S. states and/or territories that operate state apprenticeship agencies, allowing the states to independently approve their own occupations and programs.7

Electricians, who are in one of the most in-demand jobs across the clean energy industry, are commonly trained through RAPs. Recognizing the challenges presented by a growing shortage of licensed electricians, ReVision Energy established the first employer-sponsored apprenticeship program in the United States to provide the in-house technical training for solar energy professionals to earn electrical licensing.8

The ReVision Energy Electrical Apprenticeship Program is registered in Maine and New Hampshire.

ReVision Energy apprentices choose an installation or maintenance technician track, then complete 8,000 hours of supervised “in-field” experience over four years. 600 hours of classroom-based related instruction rounds out their knowledge of solar installation and safety best practices, providing leadership-skills development and state electrical-license-exam preparation.

“The decision to launch an apprenticeship program was one of the most important ones we have made as an organization,” explains James Hasselbeck, COO at ReVision Energy. “This has allowed us to scale our installation teams while maintaining the important safety, quality and ratio standards critical to the complicated electrical work we do.”

The United States solar workforce has an essential role to play in powering the transition to a clean energy future. RAPs will be a key strategy to developing, scaling and sustaining the diverse pipeline of trained talent needed to make that possible. IREC is working closely with industry, education and workforce intermediary partners to advance registered apprenticeship programs across the solar industry.

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About the Author

Megan Howes is a senior program manager at the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC). Her work focuses on designing and implementing high-impact workforce development initiatives that support an equitable clean energy future. She currently manages the U.S. Department of Energy-funded Solar Ready Vets Network.

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