By C.C. Cole, freelance writer
Combine a corporate donor with a half-dozen eager community college students, expose them to sunlight, and you have a grant-funding program for solar job training. The initiative between the Bank of America and the St. Louis Community College is yielding results just two months after it began.
Students of the inaugural session celebrated the end of an intensive eight-week program at a graduation ceremony last month. Theirs was the first of two sessions that provide full tuition grants, and additional funding could be announced this month.
The bank and the college regularly cooperate to serve the local student population, and in this instance, priority is given to residents of the Promise Zone, a federal designation of certain St. Louis City and County areas with high unemployment, crime and homelessness. More than 193,000 St. Louisans live in the Promise Zone, where the poverty rate is 24%.
“We at Bank of America applaud these programs,’’ said Katie Fischer, senior VP. “We seek out programs that are environmentally focused. When we see students will be doing something that makes an impact, it fits with our ESG [environmental, social and governance] goals.”
The solar funding is an expression of the bank’s commitment to consider environmental, social and governance factors when deploying capital. Guided by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Bank of America has made billions of dollars available to solve important problems, among them affordable housing, economic mobility and sustainable growth. The bank committed $125 billion to environmental issues in support of low-carbon, sustainable business activities.
The Bank of America-funded solar curriculum mirrors the program offered through St. Louis Community College’s School of Continuing Education, with one exception: Continuing education students have 14 weeks to master the material, nearly twice as long as the Promise Zone students.
“It’s very intense,” said instructor Ryan Chester, himself a former continuing education solar student. Chester said he pursued the training out of personal interest, and after passing the certification exam in 2013, was immediately hired into the solar industry. When his employer’s company closed, Chester formed his own company and fulfilled stranded contracts for installations throughout St. Louis.
Now a lead technician at World Wide Technology, Chester devotes his days to building data center equipment for the company’s clients and his evenings to solar training.
The recent graduates, four women and three men, range in age from 36 to 50. All are high school graduates or hold equivalency certificates. Some have completed college coursework or degrees.
“I had two years of engineering at Georgia Tech, and this is on the same level or greater than an engineering class,” said a student from Overland, Missouri. “I wanted to learn this. I had the same career for 26 years. I wanted a change. Then it was like the moon and the stars lined up. There was the grant money, and I live in a Promise Zone.”
The solar classroom
Relieved of the tuition burden, St. Louis Promise Zone solar students can dive into the subject matter. Classwork includes solar energy fundamentals, a refresher on such items as the tilt of the earth’s axis and its impact on irradiance as the earth orbits the sun. Electrical basics are a central part of the curriculum, giving students a thorough work out of Ohm’s law as it relates to energy produced by solar cells. Site evaluation and PV system sizing are covered in hands-on training with PV panels, inverters, combiner boxes and main distribution panels.
Acquiring that knowledge is required to pass a national examination for certification in the photovoltaic industry. The exam, conducted under the direction of the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) fell immediately after the student’s last class, meaning they were tested on challenging material they had learned only days earlier.
“It’s more in-depth than I expected,” said a resident of the Baden neighborhood. “It’s not just about attaching rails and flashing, it’s how solar works. I didn’t expect to learn the engineering. I appreciate it.”
Their training has readied the graduates to join Missouri’s nearly 3,000 solar industry workers. “Solar is one of the fastest growing industries in the state,” said Mary Shields, executive director of the Missouri Solar Energy Industries Association (MOSEIA).
Demand for solar installers looks strong, thanks in part to $28 million in rebates available through utility Ameren Missouri. The expected appeal of solar energy will coincide with an expanding pool of trained workers in St. Louis.
“Bank of America has been a wonderful partner,” said Jo-Ann Digman, executive director of the St. Louis Community College Foundation. “We’re delighted to make a connection between corporations and students who will stay in the local economy.”