Power move 

Feds come in to train military for civilian jobs in solar industry

When it came time for Staff Sgt. Carlos Rodriguez Trinidad to end his career in the U.S. Marine Corps, he didn't even have a résumé to help him transition into the civilian workforce.

Stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Rodriguez Trinidad went to the on-site education officer for help. There, he heard about a pilot U.S. Department of Energy program that trains military veterans for jobs in the solar industry. In February, Rodriguez Trinidad was one of its first graduates.

As of this writing, he has two job offers waiting for him. And as of this writing, the same "SunShot Initiative" is about to expand to Fort Carson.

"This program is helping transitioning service members to enter into new careers," says Minh Le, director of the solar energy technologies office in the U.S. Department of Energy. "The day they leave the armed services, the day they become vets, they have a job."

The job-training pilot, Le says, is an extension of solar industry training programs that have been operating at community colleges nationwide since 2010. But it represents the first time a government agency has partnered with the Department of Defense on a program to help veterans transition into the civilian workforce.

That transition can be especially hard for some. Of veterans who have served since the 9/11 attacks, 44 percent reported that they had difficulty readjusting to civilian life, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey. The solar training program, Le says, is one way to help those veterans secure employment.

And it's a good place to direct those veterans, as the industry has seen 86 percent growth throughout the last four years, according to the DOE.

"Seventy-five percent of consumers who are putting solar on their rooftops are middle-class Americans," Le says. "And not just because it's the 'green' thing to do, although it is. They're doing it because it makes economic sense. The cost of solar is competitive with conventional energy generation."

This past week, the Solar Energy Industries Association released its 2014 state rankings, based on the amount of solar electric capacity installed. Colorado came in at No. 13, after two years in the Top 10.

Solar power in the state currently accounts for less than 1 percent of total electricity generation, and it's not championed by everyone. Senate Bill 44, sponsored by Republican Ray Scott out of Grand Junction, would have cut in half the requirement for large utilities to generate (or cause to be generated) 30 percent of electricity via renewables by 2020. The bill was killed last week by a House committee. (Because it's municipally owned, Colorado Springs Utilities has only a 10 percent mandate; it has nonetheless adopted a 2020 goal of 20 percent.)

Despite such challenges, people like Jonathan Bass, vice president of communications for solar systems company SolarCity, aren't fazed.

"While the solar industry continues to grow at a tremendous rate nationally, Colorado's solar market is falsely limited [by sluggish energy policy]," he says. "In Colorado, the solar industry can be as large as it's allowed to be, and to some extent, only dated assumptions hold the state back. Solar industry growth has been shown to create jobs."

SolarCity is one of the largest solar companies in the U.S. by number of employees, and is finding itself competing with at least four other companies for graduates of the DOE program, including Vivint Solar, Sunrun, SunEdison and SunPower. Says Le: "These companies are clamoring over each other to hire these graduates."

According to Bass, the San Mateo, California-based SolarCity currently employs more than 300 veterans nationwide, and will "actively recruit and hire hundreds more in the coming years. We also plan to participate in an upcoming event at Fort Carson to interview graduates from the Energy Department's solar job training pilot program."

The Fort Carson training cohort will include about 25 soldiers who are in good standing and are scheduled to depart the service within 120 days. They will start their four- to six-week intensive course on Tuesday, March 17, beginning to absorb information on grounding, solar-panel installation and more. Some qualified trainees will also be prepared for management positions.

The DOE covers tuition, materials and exam fees, and Fort Carson provides the site. The trainees aren't on the hook for anything.

Those going through the program here can only hope for an outcome like Rodriguez Trinidad's. With another four to six months to spend at the USMC base near San Diego, he has a little time to think about which job offer he'd like to accept.

"I can relocate anywhere I want," he says. "Both companies have opportunities all over northern and southern California. They offered health insurance for me and my family. One company offered relocation services.

He adds: "I went into the program with zero knowledge of solar. ... I didn't have any electrical background. Before the class, I had no knowledge. Now, after the class, I am very confident that I can head out there and put up some solar panels."


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