MEET OUR PANELISTS

Meghan Craig OSEIA

Meghan Craig

Program Manager, Oregon Solar Energy Industry Association. Portland, OR

Meghan has twelve years of community organizing and public outreach experience in various environmental fields.  Her current work for OSEIA and Solar Oregon includes program management, workforce development, and learning as much about solar energy as possible.She previously served as a consultant for Green Building Services, and Northwest SEED for program management and curriculum development. Meghan holds a B.S. in Marketing & International Business from Penn State, and a Masters in Public & International Affairs, Environmental Policy from Virginia Tech. For her commitment to public service and social justice, Meghan received the Government and International Affairs Founding Faculty Award.

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Mohammed Abdalla

Founder and CEO, Good Faith Energy. Dallas, TX

Mohammed Abdalla founded a residential solar business in the middle of oil country. Raised in Plano, Texas, the son of Egyptian immigrants, he studied energy management in college, and after graduation, got a job at ConocoPhillips negotiating oil and gas lease agreements.With a long-time interest in renewable energy, in 2014 he decided to start his own solar business, and enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania’s eight-month Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy. Today, Good Faith Energy has 14 employees installing solar panels, storage systems, electric vehicle chargers, and energy-efficient lighting.

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Cameron Bard

Director of Operations, Cypress Creek Renewables. Los Angeles, CA

Cameron Bard is the Director of Operations at Cypress Creek Renewables where he oversaw the launch of a national workforce development initiative including five partnerships with technical & community colleges supporting hundreds of solar students nationwide. Previously, he served as Chief of Staff to Richard Kauffman, Chair of Energy and Finance in the office of Governor Cuomo. In this role, he helped develop and execute the administration’s clean energy agenda to grow New York’s economy with a 50% renewables commitment. Cameron is also an adjunct instructor at both UCLA and New York University, where he teaches on the role of public policy in shaping the US energy industry.

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Sarah Wilder

Director of Curriculum Development and Instruction, Solar Energy International. Paonia, CO

Sarah Wilder has been working in the solar industry since 2002, starting as an entry-level  PV installer, then moving into roles as a system designer, project manager, co-owner of a solar installation company, and energy educator. Sarah holds a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Environmental Management from Yale University where she specialized in energy policy and environmental communication. She is a NABCEP-certified PV Installation Professional and an Oregon Limited Renewable Technician, a specialty solar journeyman’s license requiring 4000 hours of on-the-job training

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Dr. Kenneth Walz

Director, Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technical Education.  Madison, WI

Dr. Kenneth Walz is the Director of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education (CREATE). With funding from the National Science Foundation, CREATE provides professional development, hands-on training, curriculum and instructional materials for renewable energy educators nationwide. Dr. Walz holds a B.S. in Science Education, and Ph.D. in Environmental Chemistry and Technology from University of Wisconsin. Since 2003, he has taught chemistry, engineering, and renewable energy at Madison College, pioneering some of the first online renewable energy courses in the US. Dr. Walz has been recognized as Professor of the Year by Carnegie Foundation and Energy Educator of the Year by the Wisconsin Association for Environmental Education.

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Jeff Benavides

Vice President Innovations and Partnerships, 15 Lightyears. Longwoood, FL

Jeff has built his unique career in energy management and sustainability over the past 9 years. With program development, project management and strategic consulting roles, he has helped transform over 30 public/private sector clients and start ups. Jeff’s commitment to process improvement, collaboration and community involvement has delivered measurable results and nationally award winning programs. Jeff is a published sustainability industry author/columnist, LEED Accredited Professional with specialty in Operations & Maintenance, and Green Globes Professional. He joined local business leaders to launch 15 Lightyears, where he now serves as the Vice President of Innovations and Partnerships.

What do you find to be the biggest workforce challenges in your region or sector?

We continue to observe challenges in connecting employers with the right job candidates.  Larger commercial and utility- scale solar firms in particular often care less about certain credentials and more about a willingness to join the sector and flexibility in location.  For Cypress Creek, we are trying to play a connecting role between reputable programs such as community colleges and solar companies looking to grow their workforce. Solar can be an overlooked career path and job seekers need to be aware of the opportunities in the industry. Many of the solar jobs available are in the field, and at the utility scale, can be seasonal and transient.

The backbone industries of Florida’s economy are also the source of the largest workforce challenge. Historically the state has been focused around agriculture, hospitality and construction, most of which offer low wages and suffer high turnover. Construction and contracting specifically, is at an all time high right now in Florida with development projected to continue for the next few years. Trade school enrollment in Florida is at an all time low, and subsequently, trades in the state lack a sufficiently trained workforce. Specifically in solar, there is no trade school that offers programs or training programs that have a work ready workforce coming out and available for hire.

The solar sector has been growing much faster than the general economy for several years. This generally means that in many emerging and growing local markets, employers are seeking more people than are available in the workforce pipeline. A big challenge is recruiting young people to consider careers in the solar field. Unlike traditional professions, very few young people grew up with parents, relatives, or mentors who worked in the solar industry. As a result, they lack exposure to the solar field, and do not have solar role models to help guide their interests, educational development and career planning related to the solar industry.  CREATE has attempted to bridge this gap by creating a series of renewable energy profiles that highlight exemplary programs, faculty, and alumni at two-year colleges across the U.S. We have interviewed solar trainers and their graduates to develop career profiles to help prospective trainees identify with people already employed in the industry.

Oregon’s solar industry set a 10 year goal in 2017 to achieve 10 percent of the energy mix from solar.  In order to reach that goal, we need to build our workforce in a sustainable way. In fact, it is estimated that Oregon’s current solar workforce needs to double in order to reach our goals. How we work to overcome the current challenges will influence what our workforce looks like in 2027.  Some of the biggest challenges include:

  • Creating optimal licensing to ensure a competitive workforce that can support our four market sectors: residential, commercial, community solar, and utility

  • Ensuring access to training programs across the state

  • Creating engagement and recruitment materials and a process for current, future workforce to utilize

  • Advocating for and achieving consistent solar policy that supports the long-term growth of residential solar

The biggest challenge is finding workers with relevant experience related to solar.  You have many things to consider – how qualified they are, their education, and their technical background.  This plays a role in how confidently and competently they can perform in their role with minimal supervision.  Another challenge lays in local training. There are not a lot of employers or organizations in the south providing quality training experiences or courses for candidates looking to get into the solar industry.  It would be beneficial to have rotating firms or non-profits to host local workforce training for workforce members. Leading off from this, on the job training remains a challenge. The solar industry is growing too fast and it is difficult to keep up with training.  Savvy, forward thinking business owners need to be willing to take a minor dip in productivity for three or four days for training. Personally, we have tried to implement training Fridays, on the last Friday of every month. These are baby steps to formalizing a training structure, and we have engaged our staff and interns, who are learning the ropes now, to come up with suggested training and curriculum frameworks.

The majority of solar employers cite a lack of trained candidates as a primary challenge to hiring. One cause of this is relatively low awareness or visibility of the solar industry as students are exploring career opportunities. What do you find works well for broadening the reach of solar in STEM curricula?

Solar Energy International (SEI) in recent years launched a program in our home state called Solar Ready Colorado as an outreach initiative to bring awareness to the career opportunities available in the solar industry. As part of our multi-faceted approach we realized that it was critical to engage with K12 and Higher Education institutions to visit schools and talk about the career opportunities, the training needed, and the aptitudes individuals may have that would make them a good fit to work in our industry. Through this program we have been invited in for many career days, classroom discussions, and guest speaker engagements to talk not just about the technology of solar, but jobs as well. Throughout this process we have focused on technical installer jobs as well as  the entire solar industry vertical from the needs of sales professionals, accountants, marketing, logistics, and all other general business operations that exist throughout our industry.

Madison College has taken several steps to integrate solar and renewable energy technology across STEM programs.  The Renewable Energy Certificate credential is designed to be paired with other academic programs in traditional fields. Students pursuing Associate of Science degrees in programs such as architecture, construction, electrical engineering, industrial maintenance, and science and engineering transfer programs can add the Renewable Energy Certificate courses to their academic plan and graduate earning both academic credentials.  This approach also allows for strong interdisciplinary collaboration. Where relevant, other academic programs incorporate renewable energy into their curriculum and all elec ild infrastructure on campus that places solar systems in high visibility locations that are accessible to students, such as the solar installation training lab features highly visible residential systems near the skilled trades building, and the school is currently constructing a 1.9MW system (the largest rooftop installation in Wisconsin) that will be accessible for instruction and public tours.

How has your organization supported regional training or workforce development initiatives, and how can other stakeholders in your region get involved?

OSEIA is participating in Solar Plus Northwest with a number of regional stakeholders to increase the amount of solar energy installed in Washington and Oregon.  We are working to increase the value proposition for solar, direct benefits to low-income communities, and increase capacity of communities around the region to educate and organize around solar opportunities.  

If a stakeholder in the region would like to engage with us, please reach out to me!

Solar Ready Colorado is a statewide effort through SEI and industry partners to expand activities of outreach, recruiting, and training to the rapidly growing Colorado solar industry and jobs market. Through industry partnerships and support from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the program provides a dedicated outreach and recruitment effort as well as technical training through SEI’s long running, non-profit technical training program to those interested in entering the Colorado solar workforce. Participants have the opportunity to take individual courses through SEI or be accepted into SEI’s Solar Professionals Certificate Program to work towards completing tracks of training and are provided career counseling and employer networking opportunities during and after completion of the training program. This regional program has been a huge success by partnering with COSEIA, GRID Alternatives, local school districts, statewide workforce offices, and other agencies. The number of students served each year has shown significant growth, which is expected to continue.  

People often think of installation when they hear about solar jobs, but we know that there are a number of other entry-level opportunities that lead to careers in the industry. How can the industry better communicate solar career pathways?

Installation jobs can be quite diverse depending on whether you are working on a residential, a commercial, or a utility-scale project. Many of the installation jobs are in fact traditional construction and electrical work.  For these folks construction and electrical apprenticeship programs offer a great on-ramp into the solar profession. Solar Technical Sales is an area of significant demand. Companies need people who both understand the technical aspects of solar photovoltaics, have a solid grasp of economics, and also are good communicators to interact with potential customers. Individuals that have this unique combination of skills are able to bring more business to their solar firms, and are of great value to their employers.

Data analysts, energy modeling, system design, electrical and structural engineering, project coordinators, customer service, service technician, sales, administration support, permitting administration, marketing, warehouse, logistics and purchasing. The industry needs to be more transparent with the complexity of the work and promote these types of positions publicly.

Moving into the classroom is one helpful opportunity.  Think of career days when you were growing up – how many lawyers, teachers, and doctors did you see? Compare that to inspirational solar professionals. By showing students at an early age what a career in the solar industry looks like, we can build greater familiarity and interest, hopefully leading to future careers in our important work. Representation matters and embodying what the career can look like is valuable particularly for young people just starting to explore job possibilities. Solar jobs are diverse—we have installers, economists, policy advocates, marketing professionals, and so many other positions that all contribute to the industry’s success.

Workforce development is about bringing together knowledge and networks to fit a region’s particular needs. How has your organization engaged community partners to support workforce development? 

We have engaged 3 solar contractors, a city government and agencies such as HBI and Career Source to work on some local solutions. Yes, we have a list of all the players and potential partners to make a committee successful. The group should commission a Workforce Survey to gauge interest and feedback from contractors on the similar questions asked in the survey. The market and contractors also need to demand better training and better quality. There are no legal or regulatory requirements required here in order to directly install solar. As long as the General Contractor or Prime Contractor has a ResumeC GC, or EC license they can legally install solar in Florida.

In 2016, OSEIA was fortunate to be included in a US DOE grant called “Solar Plus NW”.  We helped shape the vision and have been engaging with traditional and non-traditional stakeholders in Oregon and Washington since then. The funding and structure of the grant have incentivized more conversations that have lead to achievable goal setting. We are able to share information and lessons learned across the Columbia river which wasn’t being done before the grant.

Workforce development often falls behind policy and regulatory work and behind technical training needs, and behind marketing, sales and fundraising goals.  I would recommend making workforce development efforts a priority and getting leadership buy-in to back up the time and expense needed to support those efforts.  After you have time to consider goals and possible pathways to get there I would recommend sharing those goals with your community. Then set consistent meetings or calls and on each call ask folks to recommend people and/or organizations who can help you get closer to achieving your goals, broaden your usual stakeholder group.  Engaging new stakeholders is a long-term commitment to relationship building.

Good Faith Energy had Martin Herzfeld, an IREC-Certified Master Trainer to host a week-long solar training, specifically for local lower income or disadvantaged communities. Often times, training techniques tend to focus solely on solar, but it is essential that soft skills are taught too.  You can’t just have a solar centric workforce, training needs to combine soft skills, such as professionalism, punctuality, written and verbal communication, and customer interaction. We take all of these skills for granted because of our different educational backgrounds, but it is not something that everyone comes with. We have engaged a soft skills training community partner but have found that those needing soft skills training need more “work” before they can start learning solar. When approaching communities you have to be methodical, you have to understand a community’s  issues and background before providing solutions. When targeting the growing solar workforce you have to be considering which candidates can realistically succeed. You have to think beyond the surface level when we say “grow the workforce” – if we are serious about leveraging solar opportunities to help people, we need to consider life skills and soft skills for successful workers and long-term opportunities. It would be good if the industry can work together to engage the public workforce programs that connect job seekers from disadvantaged communities with career skills and job opportunities.

Cypress Creek launched our national workforce development initiative at the end of 2017. We have partnered with five technical and community colleges across the country to provide scholarships, guest lecturers, and equipment to attract new individuals to the solar workforce, with a focus on veterans and diversity. One part of our selection process was focused on regions undergoing energy market shifts—that have previously had strong energy sectors and are now facing turbulence—to emphasize new opportunities in our transition to renewables.

What’s one thing you wish more workforce development  professionals & educators knew about the solar industry?

The solar industry is still in its infant stage, and the growth potential needs to be more broadly understood.  There is less than 2% of market penetration, in terms of solar energy installations and that number will grow larger.  There are tremendous solar opportunities. When you decide to go into the solar industry you need to know that you are working in a long term system, and that it will be in a booming stage for the next few decades.  It is essential to see that upside potential despite market fluctuations at local levels. Further, it will create jobs that are local and cannot be outsourced. You will always need real people to install, design, and manage solar projects.

The complexity and wide range of technical knowledge needed to install systems. The availability and accessibility of entry-level work. The desperate need for quality, reliability, and professionalism.

The solar industry is an exciting industry that is working hard to bring clean energy technology to the masses. It also has jobs similar to most other industries – CEOs, Program Managers, Accountants, Lawyers, Electricians, Engineers and so much more at all levels.  We need more talent, ambition, and creativity in our already talented, ambitious and creative workforce in order to gain progress on this clean energy revolution. The solar industry is here to stay and now is a great time to join in!

That the solar industry is a wonderful place to have a lifelong, meaningful career at a good salary. Those who are technically-minded, care about the environment, and have solid communication skills are particularly well-suited for this industry. Transitioning from a job seeker to an industry professional with endless opportunities simply requires that first job, quality training, strong networking skills, and a good attitude. From there, opportunities abound! Whether you prefer desk work, field work, travel, teaching, etc. – the solar industry has it all. Oh, and we’re typically a pretty fun, respectful bunch of people!