Solar apprenticeship program heats up in California

To someone choosing a career, the solar industry looks like a gold rush. Solar companies are sprouting up left and right, and hiring installers at good pay.

But that's also the problem with the solar power rush: Businesses that grow overnight may not be around in six months to repair that complicated piece of technology on your roof that fails because a new installer was quickly hired without the proper training.

To deal with that lack of training, the state of California recently approved a solar apprenticeship program at Renewable Power Solutions, a solar energy installer in San Jose, CA, that hopes to make its program an industry standard at a meeting of solar companies in June.

Beyond helping to protect consumers with better installation, the program is a way for workers from the declining construction industry to join a growing field, said Jose Radzinsky, CEO of Renewable Power Solutions.

"The challenge right now is that construction has slowed down" and those skills are needed in solar, Radzinsky told me in an interview.

Apprentices in the program start at $14 an hour and finish at $28 an hour when the two-year program ends. Along with daily work with a journeyman installer, it includes classroom training and homework.

Unlike construction workers who may only have mastered a few skills, such as carpentry or being an electrician, the photovoltaic installer needs a combination of skills. They include, according to Radzinsky, working with conduit, grounding and other skills of an electrician, but much more.

"An electrician most of the time doesn't work on a roof," he said, making the job a bit more difficult.

And because the solar panels must be leak-proof and installed on roofs to withstand winds of 110 mph, the installer must also be part roofer, Radzinsky said. They must also learn how to trouble-shoot the system, use different tools and a different industry language, and be able to read a blueprint.

The program costs Radzinsky's company $50,000 to $60,000 per student for the two-year course. For now, the program is starting small at Renewable Power Solutions, with four apprentices on board within a month, and room for six in the first year.

It's a small start, but Radzinsky hopes that other solar companies, at least in California, adopt the same standards and help put a lot more people to work.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at
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