Ten high school students have begun apprenticeships as solar installers through a program to establish a home-grown solar power industry in the coalfield region of southwest Virginia. The apprentices completed a course of classroom training and have now moved on to installing rooftop solar on their public schools in Lee and Wise counties. At the conclusion of the program, based on demand, qualifying graduates will be offered permanent positions based locally.
The apprenticeship program is part of an economic development initiative called Securing Solar for Southwest, a partnership that includes two solar power companies — Secure Futures Solar, a commercial solar developer based in Staunton, and GOT Electric, a solar engineering, construction and procurement company based in Harrisonburg, VA — along with Mountain Empire Community College based in Big Stone Gap.
“For students interested in careers in energy technology, it has been difficult in the past to see the value of pursuing training in emerging technologies like solar power because it wasn’t clear that work in the field would be available in the local area,” said Kristin Westover, president of Mountain Empire Community College. “This program is different because it offers the prospect of careers that are based right in Southwest Virginia.”
Subjects of instruction in classroom courses included industrial safety, introduction to construction, the National Electrical Code and solar power installation. Secure Futures paid each of the students a $500 stipend for completing the classroom sessions where they earned nine college credits each.
Starting in early June, students moved on to the hands-on training phase of the apprenticeship for eight weeks of installing solar power equipment at public school campuses in Lee County and Wise County under the supervision of NABCEB-certified solar installers from GOT Electric. Before starting work, Secure Futures provided students with a set of tools that will be theirs to keep. For their work during the apprenticeship, students are paid $17 per hour as employees of GOT Electric.
At the conclusion of the apprenticeship, based on demand for projects, qualifying graduates will be offered ongoing positions with GOT Electric, where they can continue to work on solar projects at schools in Lee and Wise counties until their estimated completion date of mid-2023. After that, the company plans to install solar power systems at additional school divisions in the area, offering work for years to come.
Apprentices in the program range from age 16 to 18 years old. The Youth Solar Technician Apprenticeship Program is operated according to guidelines approved by the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.
“By completing such an intense apprenticeship so early in their working years, these students will gain attractive career options,” said Andy Hershberger, director of GOT Electric. “They can either pursue further training to qualify as journeyman electricians or they can continue to work as solar installers, using their apprenticeship experience to give them a head start.”
Secure Futures Solar initiated the two apprentice-built solar power projects. In 2021, the company signed power purchase agreements to provide more than 3 MW of solar panels on a total of 11 campuses at both Lee County and Wise County public schools. The company is currently in negotiations with several other school divisions in Southwest Virginia on additional solar power projects that could total upwards of 5 MW.
“Installations at the schools represent the first of many solar projects that we are pursuing with public school districts in the coalfield region that will create well-paying jobs and educational opportunities with community colleges in the region,” said Franklin “Duke” West, who oversees workforce development initiatives at Secure Futures Solar. “Southwest Virginia is now able to nurture locally trained solar installers and put graduates into career jobs with good pay and potential for advancement. Their work is a model for other communities that want to build a financially sustainable clean energy industry locally.”
News item from Secure Futures Solar
Apprenticeship programs are a better fit to the “professional” construction industry. The trades are a hands on proposition, a “student” doesn’t need to spend hours on end in a Library researching Pablo Picasso and his “blue period” for a “book report”, but does need to know how to figure current/voltage AWG requirements for a particular installation, NEC code wiring and protection methods and understanding of solar PV panel area, weight, and wind loading factors on a roof mounted system. The book report will maybe garner one a “good grade”. That “good grade” is equivalent to the burrito you ate yesterday. The apprenticeship will garner skills that will last a lifetime and professional skill levels will leave a “legacy” solar PV system to customers for years to come.