The U.S. solar industry has the responsibility of creating an unprecedented workforce to meet the growing need for solar PV output in this country. That demand for renewable energy deployment is bolstered by federal subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act and upheld by the existential threat of climate change.
While the tax credits in the IRA are enticing for developers and project owners, the apprenticeship and prevailing wages required to receive these subsidies are a wrinkle in planning. Solar contractors are in charge of developing this workforce, which has been a longtime challenge for the industry. According to a survey conducted for Solar Power World’s Top Solar Contractors List, 74% of respondents have struggled to find qualified employees in their respective territories.
Blue Ridge Power (No. 9 on the 2023 Top Solar Contractors List) of Asheville, North Carolina, created a workforce development program in 2022 to address employment demands at its own company. Since it started last summer, PowerUp has trained more than 200 people for employment at Blue Ridge Power.
“We think we offer a really great deal for people who are interested in a career,” said Eric Grant, senior director of learning and development at Blue Ridge Power. “If you’re joining a company that is an EPC, rather than joining a company that is a subcontractor or a temp company, that worker has the opportunity to advance within that company and grow into a solar career.”
Blue Ridge specializes in construction of solar projects that are 75 MW and larger, which requires many workers who must travel around its install territory throughout the Southeast and Texas.
Blue Ridge runs PowerUp from its facilities in North Carolina and Texas. The instructional programs cover training options for all ages and experience levels — including no construction experience at all.
Students in high school and college can earn credits for enrolling in PowerUp Internships, where they’ll learn the day-to-day operations of a solar EPC company. Blue Ridge partnered with high schools and community colleges in nearby counties to offer pre-apprenticeships to students interested in solar careers.
“We wanted to give an opportunity for younger people to get into solar, into recognizing that there’s great potential out there for a long-term career that can pay well, where there’s upward mobility, there’s opportunity … other than saying your options are college, military or working at a service industry job,” Grant said.
PowerUp Academy is a one-week training course that puts trainees in the field to practice installation, giving everyone a chance to have hands-on time with solar hardware and act as a crew leader. While there is instruction in a classroom, the course also simulates the conditions in which solar installers work to make the experience realistic. Students stay in hotel rooms like installers do when traveling to build an array. They work outside to get acclimated with building in heat and inclement weather.
The instructors said people who complete PowerUp have an easier time transitioning to on-the-job work, and Blue Ridge’s employee retention rates have increased from the program.
“When I came into the solar industry, I got no training,” said Edwin Martinez Cuascut, lead PowerUp instructor. “I was thrown out there to the wolves and it’s really hard and frustrating because people, when they’re under too much stress or they don’t understand something, tend to give up. But we build them up to a certain level throughout a one-week course training — we get them up to speed so they can actually be successful in the field.”
Those who complete the one-week academy are eligible for the PowerUp Apprenticeship, a U.S. Dept. of Labor-recognized, two-year program giving those enrolled several thousand hours of real-time solar installation experience. The apprenticeship program was approved by the DOL the day before the IRA was passed.
One of Blue Ridge’s goals with PowerUp is to create long-term careers at its company, guiding trainees through the earliest instruction through to completing an apprenticeship and becoming a full-time employee. That intent extends through other efforts, like recognizing and fostering students and employees that excel in leadership positions.
“We are able to take 18-year-old high school students, work with them, train them, evaluate them, put them out onto our sites,” Grant said. “These are young, sharp people who are interested and have skills and knowledge, and they’ve bought into who we are as a company. These are our future leaders. We are seeing this as: Our workforce development doesn’t end on the site. Our workforce development continues all the way through a career with Blue Ridge Power.”
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.