Spotlights

Job Description

Technically, solar energy has existed since before the Earth’s formation! But humans didn’t learn to effectively harness it until nearly a century after the photovoltaic (PV) effect was discovered in 1839. Bell Labs created silicon-based solar cells in 1954, kicking off a solar energy phenomenon that has yet to be fully exploited. However, the modern era’s focus on renewable energy and green initiatives has definitely given Solar Photovoltaic Installers a hefty employment boost. 
 
Also called PV Installers, these workers put together and install rooftop panels and systems made to harness the power of the Sun and convert it into usable energy. Solar Photovoltaic Installers work with clients to determine the most suitable configurations for their unique needs. This involves several steps. Workers measure areas, determine proper angles, decide if a support structure is needed (and if so, how to install it), assess environmental conditions, then craft customized solar solutions that meet applicable state and federal codes. Once the panels are cut and assembled into a supporting structure (if needed), they’re connected to the building’s electrical system, activated, and tested for effectiveness. These last steps may be performed with the help of electricians. 

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Working in a sector devoted to helping the environment
  • Potentially saving clients money by mitigating energy costs
  • Gaining experience in a sector primed to grow substantially in the coming years
2018 Employment
9,700
2028 Projected Employment
15,800
The Inside Scoop
Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule
 

  • Expect full-time work with occasional ebbs and flows. Most workers in this field are employed by contract businesses or are self-employed. Self-employed PV Installers will spend unpaid time advertising and marketing their services, as well as potentially needing to bid on jobs that they may not get hired to do. In emergencies, they may be called to respond during irregular hours. 

Typical Duties

  • Assess buildings for PV system suitability
  • Use hand and power tools to perform manual work 
  • Take measurements of roofs and other areas
  • Cut and install solar panels
  • Review options for angled mounting structures when needed for flat roofs 
  • Install mounts as required
  • Run voltage tests; perform maintenance on installed systems
  • Identifying electrical elements within the building to ensure compatibility 
  • Wiring modules and arrays into building electrical systems, as allowed by job specifics and state requirements 

Additional Responsibilities

  • Weatherproof systems as applicable 
  • Perform other electrical checks
  • Measure performance to ensure systems are functioning within expected parameters
  • Maintain records of tests and maintenance
Skills Needed on the Job

Soft Skills
 

  • Ability to objectively monitor and assess performance of people, systems, and equipment
  • Ability to teach and train others
  • Commitment to quality assurance
  • Cost-conscious  
  • Critical thinking
  • Customer service skills
  • Detailed-oriented
  • English proficiency
  • Inquisitive and creative
  • Safety-minded
  • Sound judgment and reasoning 
  • Strong verbal communication and listening skills
  • Teamwork
  • Visualization

Technical Skills

  • Comfortable working at elevated heights
  • Normal (or correctable) vision
  • Physical fitness and dexterity
  • Steady hands; good hand-eye coordination
  • Familiarity with tools such as hex keys, multimeters, pipe/tube cutters, drills, files, screwdrivers, and wire strippers 
  • Ability to understand blueprints, technical plans, and drawings
  • Able to work with raw materials 
  • General familiarity with basic engineering principles as they apply to the job
  • Aptitude for math, including algebra, geometry, calculus, and stats
  • Computer-aided design 
  • Software for CRM, email/office, and project management 
Different Types of Organizations
  • Contract businesses in solar
  • Self-employed
  • Utility companies
Expectations and Sacrifices

Clearly this isn’t an “office job!” Solar Photovoltaic Installers work both indoors and outdoors. Building assessments, measurements, and installations are all done outside, naturally, while design and prep may be in an office or bay area. They may also need to access attics or small interior spaces to perform electrical wiring work, when permitted to do so by state law. 
 
Some solar panels are installed at ground level, but typically they’re placed on rooftops. Installers are susceptible to falling risks, as well as electric shocks, dehydration, exposure to too much sun, and other hazards. Thus workers are expected to know and practice several safety precautions, including wearing personal protective equipment, as needed. 

Current Trends

This is still a small profession, yet job growth is expected to explode in the coming decade. The national average job growth for all jobs is only 5%, compared to 63% for Solar Photovoltaic Installers. As homeowners and private businesses strive towards energy efficiency, state and federal legislation continue to push for greener energy solutions. 
 
The cost of panels is going down, leasing options are becoming more popular, and some cities are offering financial incentives to people willing to invest in the technology. Solar is one of the easiest alternative energy solutions to incorporate into nearly any structure, so the demand for highly-qualified installers may outstrip the supply. Now is the perfect time for workers who’ve been displaced from previous careers to retrain into this growing field. Roofers, carpenters, and other types of construction workers will have a particular advantage when it comes to shifting careers. 

One more trend to consider is floating solar panels, a new twist on the idea of installing systems on bodies of water versus buildings. 

What kinds of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were young...

As a labor-intensive career field, PV Installers likely enjoyed physical activities and being outside a lot. They may have assisted with construction projects, liked working in farming environments, or simply loved the Great Outdoors. Of course, there’s also a strong element of math and science involved, which is why they were probably good in such academic areas during high school. Since solar is a green alternative energy solution, many workers may have been environmentally-conscious or at least mindful of the effects of pollution on nature. Others may simply have been interested in exciting “niche” business opportunities where there was a lot of potential but not much competition yet. 

Education and Training Needed
  • A high school diploma or equivalent is enough to get started; a college degree isn’t required, but having some online, community college, or vocational training is helpful 
    • Classes may include math, electrical topics, safety, carpentry, and of course PV 
  • OJT and informal apprenticeships are a big part of learning this field
  • Product and system-specific training is also critical and usually provided through the employer or via modules
  • Prior experience in construction, roofing, carpentry, and electrical work can shorten the learning curve substantially
  • Active duty and military veterans transitioning into civilian careers are encouraged to take advantage of the Department of Energy’s Solar Ready Vets program 
    • Check out the DoE’s other solar funding initiatives here
  • Certain states require PV licensure. Certifications include:
    • Core certifications:
      • ETA International - Photovoltaic Installer - Level 1    
      • National Fire Protection Association    - Certified Electrical Safety Technician
      • Electrical Training Alliance - Solar PV Certification    
    • Advanced certifications:
      • North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners - PV Installer Professional 
      • Underwriters Labs (UL) - Photovoltaic System Installation Certification
      • ETA International - Photovoltaic Installer/Designer    
Things to look for in an university

A university degree is not required for this field, however, completing certain courses can help you become more competitive when job-seeking. A community college or vocational/technical school is the best way to knock out essential classes.

List of Solar Photovoltaic Programs

Some community colleges and vocational/technical schools feature special training programs for Solar Photovoltaic careers. Examples include The Training Center (Texas), Indian River State College (Florida), Solar Training Academy (multi-state campuses), Delaware Technical Community College, and Crowder College (Missouri). 
 
For students who don’t live near institutions offering relevant courses, online programs can teach some basics but don’t offer any hands-on practical experience. Online examples include Solar Energy International, SolPowerPeople, and Century College.

Things to do in High School and College
  • A career in Solar Photovoltaic Installation relies on both physical and mental preparedness
  • Classes involving labor, tool usage, or physical fitness will help develop necessary physical aspects, while algebra, geometry, calculus, stats, computer-aided design, and electrical courses will build tech skills
  • Often high school students can take community college classes simultaneously, helping expedite your path to getting a job right after graduation
  • Develop your technical reading and IT skills through classes or by practicing at home
  • Get practical work experience through part-time carpentry, construction, or roofing jobs
  • Consider volunteering on local Habitat for Humanity projects, especially those involving PV installation (such as efforts funded through partners like PG&E)
  • Review Skills Needed on the Job above for a list of programs to get familiar with
  • Sign up for SolPowerPeople’s free massive open online courses and micro-classes 
  • Watch related videos on YouTube, Udemy, or other sites to learn more about the field 
  • Find professional organizations that offer educational opportunities (see Recommended Resources in Landing the Job tab) 
Typical Roadmap
Solar PV Installer Gladeo Roadmap
How to land your 1st job
  • Because of the rapidly-growing demand for PV Installers, the outlook is great for those with the necessary basic qualifications
  • Employment portals like Glassdoor, Indeed, or SimplyHired are good starting places
  • Don’t forget your local Craigslist, or do a Google search for local PV company websites 
  • If you take community college or vocational training classes, ask their career services staff for recommendations. They may have their own job boards or other resources
  • Carefully read job ads for specific requirements and experiences that the employer is looking for. Only apply to jobs you’re qualified for
  • Check out existing resume templates for “Solar Energy Installers”
  • Focus on relevant work and academic experiences, skills, and personal characteristics 
  • After applying, always answer calls from unknown numbers professionally!
  • Expect employers to do homework on you by reviewing your online public profiles
  • Polish up your interview skills by conducting mock interviews. Read through Glassdoor’s posts on real-world interview questions that workers report being asked
How to Climb the Ladder
  • Solar Photovoltaic Installers usually start in entry-level positions and work their way up through hard work and learning everything they can
  • Knock out any additional coursework or training your employer suggests
  • Become proficient with the equipment and systems you work with, and study manufacturer-provided materials 
  • Become NABCEP-certified, and/or complete optional core and advanced certifications when you have the minimum experience needed 
  • Obtain state licensure, as applicable 
  • Talk with your supervisor about promotions to project supervisor or manager
  • If you’re interested in sales, let your employer know or reach out to manufacturers
    • Installer experience will make you a much better salesperson than someone who's never gotten their hands dirty
  • For those with an entrepreneurial mindset, consider launching a private PV installation business. Chron’s How to Start a Solar Power Company gives great tips to get started!
    • More resources:
      • Fast Company - 4 Market Niches in the Solar Boom
      • Franchise Direct - Solar Universe Franchise Costs
      • Solar Energy International - State Licensing
Recommended Resources

Websites

  • Electrical Training Alliance 
  • Energy.gov
  • EnergySage
  • ETA International 
  • Franchise Direct - Solar Universe Franchise Costs
  • Interstate Renewable Energy Council
  • Interstate Renewable Energy Council Solar Licensing Database
  • IRENA
  • National Fire Protection Association    
  • North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners 
  • Small Business Administration
  • Solar Energy Industries Association
  • Solar Energy International
  • SolPowerPeople
  • U.S. Energy Information Administration
  • Underwriters Labs

Books

  • Solar Photovoltaic Basics, by Sean White 
  • Solar Photovoltaic Systems Installer Trainee Guide (Contren Learning), by NCCER 
  • Photovoltaic Design & Installation For Dummies, by Ryan Mayfield  
  • Mike Holt's Illustrated Guide to Understanding NEC Requirements for Solar Photovoltaic Systems, by Mike Holt 
  • Solar Energy: The Physics and Engineering of Photovoltaic Conversion, Technologies and Systems, by Olindo Isabella, Klaus Jäger, et al.
  • Solar Electricity Handbook: A simple, practical guide to solar energy – designing and installing solar photovoltaic systems, by Michael Boxwell
Plan B

The world seems destined to shift towards renewable energy sources, however solar isn’t the only horse in the race. Meanwhile, for those who’ve explored the option and decided to pass, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists plenty of similar labor-related occupations. Each has its own education and training requirements, but typically none require a four-year degree to get started:

  • Carpenters
  • Construction Laborers 
  • Electricians    
  • Glaziers    
  • Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Mechanics 
  • Ironworkers
  • Masonry Workers
  • Plumbers, Pipefitters, Steamfitters
  • Roofers
  • Sheet Metal Workers

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