Thursday, April 7, 2011

Oh my goodness… I’ve been caught in the middle of these solar ambiguous trends.

By Ronald Robles, VP and CFO of CMR Solar Energy Integrators

I have a very positive attitude and love this solar industry. I just want to capture your attention on how the government, utilities and organizations who follow market trends agree that the industry is growing and consequently they are setting up high expectations that are hard to believe.

Published official and non-official trends should give us a sense of direction and confidence, but for people who are trying to get into these green careers the trends just doesn’t make sense.

Just in California, over 7,000 enthusiast installers were registered
in 2010 as volunteers with Grid Alternative. That’s probably the same number or a portion of all PV solar graduates that have taken some sort of training at colleges, trade schools and other private organizations, which could be from one week worth of training to one trimester.

At least 20 people graduate per PV Solar class every quarter. How many colleges and trade schools are in Northern California? There are more than twenty delivering PV Solar classes, regardless of the online schools. How many of these graduates are seriously considering a career in solar? No more than 20%. Why? Very low wages, no jobs available, solar companies are shutting down or moving somewhere else, real estate owners don’t have money to pay for their solar systems, banks and credit unions are not providing financing except for equity or personal loans with a prohibitive interest rate, and sometimes the same instructors are solar company owners who are running out of business or moving to something else, which makes this industry even creepier. 

There is no doubt all these schools are banking the large demand in PV solar education thanks to unemployment and available grants for these purposes. This is a great opportunity for those in the education business and those who write grants for a living. I think this is fine since it gives a bit of hope to unemployed workers, but solar companies aren’t at the same pace. It seems colleges have overwhelmed the market with qualified PV solar people and now they can’t get a job.

Solar companies are hiring, but they are looking for individuals with extensive experience and degrees that are compatible with their businesses. They aren’t looking for installers or sales agents. Those crews are already locked in most cases and companies don’t need more. However, the number of colleges and trade schools providing training in PV solar installation and sales are increasing due to misleading trends. Unemployed workers are getting caught in the middle of this solar ambiguity.

If we do an analysis of who is taking these PV solar classes, mostly paid with grants and scholarships, we will find out there are electricians, roofers, carpenters, engineers, real estate agents, waiters, PhD’s, teachers, marketers, economists, bartenders, accountants, financial analysts and more. It’s common to find this mix of careers in the same classroom.

People who take these classes are mostly those who have lost their jobs and are thinking the solar or green industry will provide them an opportunity to transition to a new career. That’s not happening.

Hopes are shrinking and unemployed workers are realizing they have done a big mistake by dedicating their time and efforts on something that won’t pay off, at least not in the short term. What is worst, they are facing the end of their unemployment benefits.

It is also interesting that the few companies, who are hiring this type of “entry level” PV solar graduates (I’ll say one is hired every 30 companies these days), just offer $12-$15 the hour to installers. Sales agents are offered to be paid on commissions only. That’s very discouraging. There are no benefits either.

So, what can be done to save this sinking mess?

Well, first of all, the government should do an assessment of their grants. They can’t continue to pour money into programs that won’t help much the unemployed workers and the economy.

Second, colleges and trade schools should design better programs and fast, allowing unemployed workers an easy transition to green careers based on the workers qualifications and experience. These programs should consider the candidate’s skills to match the right education to their level of expertise. California possesses high qualified professionals and it is embarrassing these programs aren’t challenging enough.

Third; federal, state and local governments should reconsider their tax incentives and how to get better sponsorships from companies in the PV solar industry and utilities. These companies should be committed to hire graduates from local colleges and trade schools right after graduation. Educational programs should fulfill the job requirements and be adjusted every quarter to meet employers goals.

Last but not least, graduates should stay put and consider joining an association to keep their new careers up to date, take advantage of federal and state aids to become entrepreneurs, and be ready for times when trends become a reality. PV Solar graduates are full of great experiences and skills gained in their previous jobs, which are useful for most businesses. Of course, each individual has an area of expertise, but things will be more favorable if graduates partnership with others to succeed in this industry.

There might be other options. There is still time to fix this. If you, reader of this column, are an authority in this field or know someone who is, please help. We all need to take action and this is the best time to do it.

April 7, 2011


  1. I agree, Solar market won't takeoff as expected. On top of that, it is a commodity business.

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