When a state’s solar market starts to take off, one of the first major growing pains is sorting out solar licensing requirements, or lack thereof.
Arkansas jumped from 35th to 30th in the nation for solar installations in 2022, with about 16 installers and developers working in the state, according to SEIA. Residential installer Shine Solar (No. 137 on the 2023 Top Solar Contractors List), based in Rogers, Arkansas, is one of those companies and has been closely involved with licensing and regulation standards for this up-and-coming solar state.
While most states require contractors to hold an electrician’s license to perform solar PV installations, Arkansas currently takes it one step further. The state mandates that everyone working on a project either be a registered apprentice or a licensed electrician.
“The struggle that we’ve been seeing in Arkansas particularly has just been the balance between, what does a solar installer look like and what is the licensing that’s needed for that [vs.] for an electrician?” said Chris Trudo, president of operations and fulfillment for Shine Solar.
The Arkansas Board of Electrical Examiners in charge of administrating electrical licensing laws was pushing for a new four-year program for a solar electrician license, but the program and classes would be nearly identical to a regular electrical apprentice. After all that schooling, the worker would only be able to install solar and not perform other electrical work.
“That really cripples the ability to do business, because we would not only have to have solar electricians, we would [also] have to have journeyman electricians to come and do a panel alteration or a service upgrade or trench work or anything like that, because by definition, a solar electrician wouldn’t be able to do it,” Trudo said.
So Trudo got involved with the Arkansas Workforce Development Board to help with their efforts to define the job of solar installers, including their responsibilities and the licensing required. He said the board has made some good progress on an equitable educational path, with more work to be done.
For now, the state isn’t strictly ensuring that everyone on every solar jobsite is meeting the current rules to be either an electrical apprentice or licensed electrician. Trudo said some companies are skating by without meeting those metrics, but Shine is determined to hit the high standards.
For a while, the company tried to get employees trained at the local community college. They were logging plenty of the required on-the-job hours, but the company operates in six states, so life on the road made getting to in-person class difficult.
“So I challenged our team to look at, ‘Hey, let’s start our own school. Let’s look at what that takes,'” Trudo said.
A fusion of online and in-person classroom hours combined with on-the-job training turned out to meet the state’s requirements. Shine Solar Academy was approved and went live in October 2022. The program includes both a two-year residential electrical wiring license and a four-year journeyman electrical license. The class meets Tuesday nights at Shine headquarters and via Zoom for those working out of town. There are currently 35 students enrolled in the program, with seven set to get their licenses this year.
“The great thing is, when they’re able to graduate through the program and they take their tests and get the license, their pay continues to climb up as they go through that first year, second year, third and then fourth, as a journeyman,” Trudo said. “Then they jump in already knowing our system, the quality, what our expectations are, and really just go right to work. It’s very sustainable, scalable and, so, it’s been awesome.”
The program is offered at no cost to employees — Shine just asks that they commit to staying with the company for a set number of years after receiving their licenses. Growing an internal pipeline of increasingly skilled workers pays off for Shine in the long run with higher-quality installations and positive customer relationships.
“Our company is really, really committed to compliance, and that’s been really good thing for us. As times get difficult or the market changes, the decisions you make regarding compliance come back in a positive way,” Trudo said.
While the state is still working through solar licensing rules for the growing industry, Shine is hoping to be a few steps ahead with its in-house training options.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2023 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.