New Opportunity For Some Service Workers: Solar Installation
Fast-growing job pays from $32,000 to $64,000, depending on location
If you’re waiting for your job in services — retail or otherwise — to restart or to ramp back up to full hours, you might consider switching to solar installation, a fast-growing job market.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts solar installer jobs will grow by 63% between 2018 and 2028, for an addition of 6,100 jobs. Annual median pay in 2019 was $45,000, or $21.58 an hour, and could make the required training worth your time.
The job. Installers assemble, set up and maintain systems that convert sunlight into energy. They measure, cut and assemble the support structure for solar panels, meet building codes and standards, connect panels to electrical systems, and test the systems to make sure they work.
Most work is outdoors, but installers sometimes enter attics and crawl spaces to connect panels to the electric grid. (They also risk falls from ladders and roofs — mitigated by fall protection equipment — as well as electrical shocks and burns.)
Top employers of solar installers include SolarCity, SunRun and Tesla Motors, according to PayScale, a compensation comparison website.
The BLS reports that the top paying metropolitan areas for solar installers are Santa Cruz, California, $34.76 an hour; San Francisco, $28.20 an hour; and Honolulu, $28.19. The top paying states are Oregon, $27.97 an hour; Hawaii, $27.37 an hour; and Texas, $25.82 an hour.
In February, the Solar Foundation reported the highest growth in solar jobs came from almost 2,000 positions added in Florida, about 1,000 each added in Georgia, Utah and New York. Florida and Utah are toward the lower end when it comes to pay, however, according to BLS.
The lowest 10% earned less than $32,000, according to BLS. The highest 10% earned more than $64,000.
Demand should return. Like in most industries, clean energy jobs have taken a beating from COVID-19. Research firm BW Research Partnership reports that the field as a whole has lost almost 600,000 jobs, a 17% drop in employment, during the pandemic. BW defines clean energy jobs to include renewable electric power generation — solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass technologies — electric cars, and energy efficient lighting and HVAC.
However, professionals who employ clean energy workers say job demand will come back once the economy has reopened and stabilized.
Many states have renewable energy requirements, goals and mandates on emission reductions, said Jim Harrison, director of renewable energies for the Utility Workers Union of America.
“We do not see those being repealed because of the economic downturn,” Harrison said.
Some states offer tax credits on solar installations, which boost demand. Massachusetts, for example, has a payback period of just six years, while sunny Louisiana’s payback period is 21 years.
The training. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council provides a map that shows licensing requirements for solar installers by state. Certifications from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners “carry the most weight in terms of national recognition,” said Sarah Bucci, communications director at GRID Alternatives, an Oakland, California-based national nonprofit offering renewable energy technology and job training to underserved communities.
GRID offers renewable energy technology and job training to underserved communities. Job seekers can work with groups like GRID to complete basic training programs for the skills employers seek for entry-level installation candidates. Don’t sign up for the first solar installation training you see; courses can be costly and quality varies widely. Before committing, investigate and talk to grads about the training and the job they landed. Talk to employers about the training they offer and which outside training they value.
Organizations like Solar Energy International offer programs ($845 for a six-week beginners program). Cities and states offer programs, such as Illinois’ Solar for All program. The Solar Training Network's Solar Ready Vets is available for people who have served in the military. Local community colleges and workforce development agencies offer programs as well.
Community colleges and mechanical schools offer training and certifications. Union apprenticeships that offer training and certification for solar panel installation don’t cost employees, and wages are generally higher than non-union similar positions, Harrison said.
Training can last a month to a year. Groups like the Midwest Renewable Energy Association usually offer online and in-person training. The online basic solar installation course for June costs $135 for non-members.
Finding work. Trade groups like the Solar Energy Industries Association host job boards for seekers. GRID has a resume bank and job board for participants. And plenty of niche job boards exist in the clean energy space, including Bo Sosnicki’s Sustain O’bility and GreenJobs.com. Large employers of installers and technicians use job board websites like Indeed and LinkedIn.