Published on May 25th, 2012 | by Tom Schueneman0
SolarTech Partnership Model: Investing in People, Powering Solar and Clean Tech Growth
May 25th, 2012 by Tom Schueneman
A clean energy revolution
Like the first wave of electrification changed the lives of our forbears in the early years of the last century, these first decades of the 21st century mark the beginning of solar power and clean as a mainstream reality in our daily lives. Solar power is an emerging market for an industry taking its first steps in the new energy economy. While solar and clean tech promise to transform our society for the better, the industry’s rapid expansion carries with it many growing pains, not the least of which is the struggle to effectively manage workforce development – put simply, finding the right people for the right jobs at the right time.
Growing pains: a solar industry call to action
The industry has done a good job in the past few years investing in products and processes – what it does and how it does it – but it hasn’t kept pace so well in who’s going to do what needs done for solar companies to grow and adapt in an emerging industry. As important as they are, too many independent training programs have cranked out too many rooftop installers for the industry to absorb, as one case in point. Training, recruiting, and workforce needs are too often fragmented efforts work in isolation. What is needed is a market-based, systematic approach to training and staffing.
“In the past 5 years we’ve seen major cost and time–to–market reductions, helping the industry scale” says Fabienne Rodet, Senior Analyst for SolarTech, a Silicon Valley-based solar industry leadership initiative. “Where the solar industry has fallen short, in our view, is investing in people and this is fundamentally where we need a solar industry call to action.”
The SolarTech Workforce Innovation Collaboration – Faster, smarter, cheaper
SolarTech has taken up that call to action. In partnership with NOVA Workforce, Foothill-DeAnza Community Colleges and San Jose State University, SolarTech has pioneered the SolarTech Workforce Innovation Collaborative (SWIC), a novel pilot program for training high-level solar professionals and matching them with available jobs.
SWIC is a public/private partnership funded by a $4 million Green Innovations Challenge Gant sponsored in 2010 by the California Labor & Workforce Development Agency. The SWIC model identifies current market needs and trends in a real time basis, integrating that ongoing research with relevant and thorough professional-level training in all aspects of solar, clean tech and energy efficiency. Closing the circle is coordination of this industry research and training with employee screening and placement services.
The core message bears repeating: the right person for the right job at the right time.
Since its inception, SWIC has proved a successful win-win model for workforce development in a fast-paced industry, cutting the cost to employers for finding qualified professionals to $0, often saving companies from $12,000 to $18,000 in employee acquisition costs and countless hours of wading through the resumes of unqualified candidates. Prospective employees are educated, industry-trained, and ready to “hit the ground running.”
Training is offered free of charge to students at various community colleges throughout the Bay Area, including classes in Solar PV Design, Solar Sales and Proposal Development, Clean Energy Technology, Building Science, Energy Management and Efficiency, EV and Hybrid Vehicle Technology, and other relevant courses of study aimed at closing the gap between trained professionals eager to enter the industry and available jobs.
In two years the program has gone from concept to 254 students trained and, as of this writing, at least 129 placed in jobs, with many more expected in the coming weeks.
SWIC up close and personal
Five graduates of the SWIC program were on hand last week at SEMI global headquarters in San Jose to report to Facilities Director John Friedlund their findings from a detailed energy efficiency analysis for the building, part of their “final exam” for the commercial building energy efficiency portion of the training.
John was willing to let teams of students poke and prod at the building’s HVAC, lighting, and plug load data, and for doing so was presented with an estimated $30,000 in potential operating cost reduction.
This real-world experience is an important key component of the SWIC program, offering graduates a solid footing to test their knowledge and work flows as well as an opportunity for both prospective employee and employer a chance to work together.
The event at SEMI was attended by representatives of all stakeholders in SWIC to showcase the results-oriented focus of the program. “This is a textbook example of what we envisioned two years ago,” said project manager Justin Bradley.
At the conclusion of the presentation the students discussed their experience and outlook for the future. One of the five students had already landed a job, but all expressed enthusiasm and hope for their prospects in the industry, all from a combination of their own hard work and the opportunities provided from the SWIC program.
Besides the employment screening and placement service from Nova Workforce, SWIC organizes solar industry job fairs and regular contact with employers throughout the course of the training. In fact, it was this sort of contact that landed Bob O’Hagan his job. Bob’s “job interview” happened after class between the classroom and the parking lot with that evening’s guest speaker on smart grid technology. Now that guest speaker is Rudy’s boss.
“That brings up the relational aspect [of the program],” says SWIC Program Manager Justin Bradley, “that you can give the right training, you can give everything, but unless there’s a lead and a link of relationships it’s really hard to make these things work”
The future of SWIC
For a program with a proven concept and such great potential like SWIC, there’s got to be a down side. And there is – chiefly in the fact that, at least for now, the SWIC program is over. The five students I met the other day are among the last to benefit from the program as the grant funding has all but run its course.
“The State has called in our grant as of the 1st of June,” SolarTech Director of Grants and Industry Solutions David McFeely told me. “But we are working on plans for an industry-funded approach for SWIC,” he said, “perhaps a subscription-based model.”
The size and scope of any future program will be hammered out in the next six to eight months, with hopes of a new program launch before the year is out. “We want to do any replicating and scaling smartly and in the right way,” says Rodet.
Even if not exactly sure what the future holds for a working program, SolarTech is optimistic that the SWIC idea will benefit the growth of solar, energy efficiency and clean tech into drivers of a new 21st century economy – indeed it already has.
“It’s an investment in people,” says McFeely. And it is people, after all, upon which the success of solar energy and the entire new energy economy depend.
Image credit: SolarTech