SVCC begins program to train solar farm workers

Published 3:38 pm Thursday, May 27, 2021

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A collaborative effort between Southside Virginia Community College and the Solar Hands-on Instructional Network of Excellence (SHINE) is working to develop a new short-term training program with the potential to put thousands of unemployed and underemployed people to work in local communities and across the commonwealth.

The program will teach basic skills necessary for entry into the emerging field of utility-scale photovoltaic installation.

“Utility-scale solar projects represent one of the most significant opportunities for southside Virginia to expand its business base,” David Peterson, executive director of SHINE, said. “The Virginia Clean Economy Act, which passed last year, gives the state a mandate to meet certain objectives for renewable energy.” 

The act, which passed in 2020 with bipartisan support among Virginia’s citizens, requires the creation of a renewable energy portfolio that will move the commonwealth toward a clean-energy goal. Solar energy is an important part of this mix, and investments in utility-scale generating capacity are vital to its success. SHINE estimates that utility-scale solar construction through 2028 will bring upwards of 22,550 megawatts of generating capacity to Virginia and create more than 31,000 jobs across the state. Within the counties served by SVCC, 4,000 jobs are expected within the next few years. 

Despite these promising projections, Peterson acknowledges some challenges.

“The issue is clouded by the politics of renewable energy, but the economic value and job creation value have tremendous direct economic benefit to the community. Solar installation training opens the door for people who want to start careers in energy fields or move forward in other construction-type career paths.”

“The partnership between SHINE and SVCC has set the example of how communities can ensure local residents have the skills needed to take advantage of the growing opportunities in the solar industry,” SVCC’s Vice President of Academic and Workforce Programs, Dr. Keith Harkins, said. “Utility-scale solar projects are on the rise in Virginia, and this partnership has created a foundation upon which other communities can build. We are beyond excited about how this partnership will help our students gain entry into this exciting industry.”

The partnership brings the college and future employers together to shape the program. Peterson explained this dynamic.

“The industry professionals who will be doing the hiring are also developing the curriculum. They know what they need in future workers. The college knows how to deliver the training.”

Small test cohorts have enabled groups of students and industry partners to provide input and refine the curriculum in a way that will generate a highly targeted, short-duration program. The emphasis will be on the rapid development of entry-level skills needed for immediate employment. Peterson emphasizes the importance of such a focused effort.

“People with families and other responsibilities just don’t have the luxury of spending a long time in training. They need to move quickly into an income-generating position.”

Program graduates will receive industry-recognized credentials, such as OSHA 10 and SHINE certifications, which affirm their readiness to enter the solar installation field. In addition, SHINE will facilitate job interviews with contractors who are ready to move forward with construction. 

Workers seeking to move up the career ladder will have further opportunities. The certifications are designed to be stackable, so people who choose to continue their education can pursue additional steps leading to such specialties as operations and maintenance. The earned credentials and work experiences are also transferrable. This will enable people who want to pursue opportunities in other renewable energy or building industries to diversify their skill sets. Some people may even choose to pursue exciting opportunities with utility-scale solar contractors who have a presence across the commonwealth, across the U.S. and even around the world.

Founded in 2018 with a focus on keeping solar jobs and their corresponding economic benefits in-state, SHINE is a public-private partnership representing members of the Maryland-DC-Delaware-Virginia Solar Industries Association, solar developers, construction companies, energy consulting and recruiting firms and other industry and education experts. Its purpose is to build innovative solar career pathways in Virginia through the development of a qualified, diverse, equitable and inclusive solar workforce.