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Record heat, record growth for jobs in solar energy

Solar energy isn't new, but it's been turning heads recently as the number of solar workers in the United States doubled from 2009 to 2010. What's more, job growth in this field shows no sign of stopping. According to the 2010 National Solar Jobs Census published by The Solar Foundation, job growth from August 2010 to August 2011 was expected to be 26 percent, with 50 percent of all solar firms expecting to add to their workforce. Job prospects should be especially strong for electricians trained in solar power installation.

Booming business in the solar industry

Renewable energy is an expanding field, and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reports the U.S. solar energy industry was one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy during the first part of 2011. In the first quarter of the year, there was a 66 percent year-over-year increase in photovoltaics (PV) installations. While all three PV market sectors - industrial, commercial and residential - saw growth, the greatest increase was in the commercial market.

In announcing the first quarter results, Tom Kimbis, Vice-President of Strategy and External Affairs for SEIA, remarked that analysts predict the U.S. will become the world's largest solar market in the coming years. The American Solar Energy Society (ASES) sees the same trend, noting in its 2010 Green Collar Jobs Report that solar thermal and solar PV are two of the hottest sectors for revenue growth within the renewable energy industry.

Overall, renewable energy appears poised to compete with oil in terms of domestic production. According to the July 2011 Monthly Energy Review published by the U.S. Department of Energy, domestic production of renewable electricity has surpassed that of nuclear energy. In addition, energy from renewable sources is approaching 80 percent of that from domestic crude oil.

The push for renewable energy is fueled in part by the growing number of states that are mandating that utility companies explore alternative power production methods. These mandates, called renewable portfolio standards, have been enacted in 29 states and the District of Columbia. As of last August, another six states have set renewable energy goals, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Mandated standards vary by state with Maine having perhaps the most ambitious goal in requiring that 40 percent of energy production come from renewable sources by 2017.

Job opportunities in solar energy

Solar energy jobs are diverse. They range from scientific research to manufacturing to installation. Other professionals in the field may not work directly with solar technology, but be employed in related industries that market solar products. The Solar Foundation reports solar jobs exist in all 50 states and last year, more than 93,000 workers were employed directly by the solar industry.

The foundation also reports that all sectors of the solar industry should experience job growth in the current year, but PV installers and electricians with specific experience in solar installations are expected to be in greatest demand. Twelve month job growth for PV installers is expected to be 51-66 percent while demand for solar energy electricians should increase 42-55 percent.

Even as solar firms are looking to hire more workers, many report a shortage of qualified individuals to fill job openings. The National Solar Jobs Census from 2010 found 65 percent of businesses have difficulty finding solar PV installers or technicians who meet their hiring expectations. In addition, 62 percent have trouble finding qualified electricians with solar experience.

Break into the solar energy field as an installer or electrician

One of the fastest ways to enter the solar energy industry is as an electrician or installer. Not only are these positions expected to see tremendous growth, they can also be obtained with a minimal amount of education. Unlike engineering or research positions that may require advance degrees, electricians and installers often only need to complete a short vocational training program before being ready to work.

"Most solar jobs are laid out and pretty much anyone with a wrench and some mechanical knowledge can put them together," said Dana Tietz, a N.J. electrical consultant affiliated with eLocalElectricians.com. "However, the tricky part is hooking them to the inverter to change from DC power to AC power and back feeding the grid. That is where the training comes in."

According to Tietz, the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) offers the gold standard for solar electrical certification. Once individuals complete their coursework, they can sit for the NABCEP PV Entry Level Exam. However, only those with professional working experience can receive the full NABCEP Certified PV Installer designation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't track incomes for solar professionals. However, in a 2011 report on solar occupations, the bureau says industry sources indicate entry-level installers earn average salaries of $30,000 to $40,000 annually. Those trained as electricians can earn significantly more.

In Tietz's experience, collective bargaining agreements can also play a significant role in earnings. Unionized jobs can pay more than three times the hourly wage of non-unionized positions. In N.J., union jobs for solar handlers run $34 per hour while solar installers without credentials can earn $48 per hour. Meanwhile, Tietz says he's heard reports of at-will positions paying as little as $9 per hour.

For job seekers, solar energy is a smart move. "Being a solar energy electrician is great to have on your resume," said Tietz. "It'd be beneficial to be one of the first experts in your area so you can capture the market before competitors."