Despite projections that solar will continue to grow, even the most inspired students don’t want to jump in the field without knowing more about what the industry has to offer — and what it takes to make a successful installer, field technician, power utility technician or engineer.
That information is the focus of a solar careers e-book recently released by Ecotech Institute, a four-year-old technical college in Aurora, Colo. specializing in renewable energy and sustainability. It offers programs — mainly two-year associate degrees — in a range of areas including solar, wind and power utility technology, as well as residential energy management and electrical engineering.
“There’s a lot of people out there who want an opportunity to do something that is more visceral than what you get in a typical classroom situation, and we’re definitely trying to cater to that crowd,” said Chris Gorrie, Ecotech’s president. “We really focus on the hands-on aspect of the trade, of being technicians.”
Gorrie says Ecotech strives to produce graduates who can meet the demands of industry. In a rapidly changing environment, that means keeping a close eye on the ground — as well as working with local advisory boards (set up for each program) and industry professionals so that Ecotech can adapt and respond its curriculum to those changes.
“They meet with us every year to talk about current trends in industry,” Gorrie said. “Their suggestions can range from which torque wrenches to use [on wind turbines] to the curriculum — for example, we dialed back on solar thermal and [went] to grid-tied PV because most of the industry was there.”
While the solar e-book — which has a sister publication focused on careers in the wind industry — is more of an introduction rather than an in-depth analysis of what to expect as a solar industry worker, the publication covers such topics as a “typical” day as an installer (spoiler alert: there is no such thing), salary projections for installers (which range from a low of $26,250 to a high of $57,980), and where the jobs are (hint: Go west).
And along with a directory of online resources, it lists the key technical skills needed to thrive in the arena, such as the ability to work with complex electrical and mechanical equipment, safety skills, basic math skills, and possession of physical strength and stamina. One also needs to be able to make critical decisions quickly, weigh the pros and cons of solutions, have good customer service skills and be able to delve into the details of complicated solar system installs.
Ecotech’s solar students get time in the real world to practice such skills by getting on the roof with Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that works to provide solar to communities that otherwise might not have had access to such technology.
“Students in their last term do a soup-to-nuts installation with Grid Alternatives,” Gorrie said. “Their time goes towards advanced NABCEP certification, the standardized accreditation for solar installers.”
With 400 students and over 30 faculty members, the school is small. Yet Gorrie says it’s growing — much like the opportunities in the renewable energy field.
One of these areas, he says, is in the power utility sector, an area where Ecotech is graduating its first class from its power utility technician program.
“We’re at a point in time where our power grid is being upgraded to the next level — there’s a lot of talk about smart grid and a lot of folks in that industry are beginning to retire,” he said. “So the graduating students will have a lot of really great career opportunities.”