Solar Energy International's Chris Turek, Director of Online and Educational Services, and Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) recently connected in Carbondale, Colorado, to discuss solar training, the solar industry, certifications, certificate programs, workforce development, and more.
Since 1991, Solar Energy International has been on the forefront of renewable energy education, employing 20 ISPQ Certified Trainers and 24 NABCEP Certified Solar Installers as instructors and staff — more than any other solar training organization. Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) is a nonprofit energy consulting company that manages the Garfield Clean Energy Program, which provides energy coaching and advice for homeowners and building managers throughout Garfield County on the Western Slope of Colorado. CLEER manages numerous rebate programs funded by the Department of Energy, Governor's Energy Office, the Department of Local Affairs, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
CLEER: What is happening in the solar industry that will help create a quality workforce for a clean energy economy?
Chris: One interesting happening we are seeing at Solar Energy International is that the solar industry is maturing. With that maturation process, we are experiencing the "wild wild west" nature of this industry becoming a little bit tamer by falling in line with commonly accepted norms in other career and technical fields. These norms are being seen through employers wanting proof and documentation of rigorous training from their employees, in addition to any entry-level tests they have passed or certifications they hold. Community colleges, technical trade schools, for-profit training organizations, and nonprofit technical training providers such as SEI are stepping up by creating formal full programs of training. It is the role and responsibility of all these types of training providers to ensure a quality renewable energy workforce here in the U.S. and abroad.
Certificate programs, diplomas, degrees, certifications, and licenses are all part of the industry dialog and national conversation, but each are uniquely different from each other and anyone considering themselves a "professional" in this industry should understand the difference. The good thing is the solar and renewable energy industry as a whole is beginning to self-regulate to provide a clear distinction between all of these professional credentials. This has been a common maturation process and trajectory in many other technical fields and industries in the past decade.
CLEER: What other industries could serve as examples for the solar industry to consider?
Chris: The rise of the information age and the IT industry comes to mind as an example I have personally experienced. Even though IT is a totally different field, there have been observable parallels the solar industry should recognize to avoid some of the pitfalls experienced during the rise of the Information Age around the turn of this century. Back then, everyone wanted to be in IT and saw it as the next big career boon in the U.S.
Everyone thought they needed to rush off and get a Microsoft MCSE or Cisco CNA/CNE certification, for example, this created a huge influx of individuals with minimal training and experience while taking boot camp-style weekend or week-long courses to help pass a test. Networking and IT training programs sprouted up everywhere in every hotel conference room and available space across the U.S. This approach totally flooded the industry with what we playfully called "paper engineers" in reference to the fact the only thing they had to show as proof of aptitude was a piece of paper to hang on their wall and little else.
It took less than a decade for IT employers to get wise to this low standard of training creating paper engineers. Companies really started emphasizing the importance of rigorous training and education above and beyond certifications. I call this the "certification is necessary, but not sufficient" maturation stage and we are seeing the writing on the wall that the solar industry is now entering this stage. We all could probably agree we are solidly in the Clean Energy Age, or at least it is most definitely within the world's lexicon. So it might be a good idea to look at other recent industry boons to learn some lessons.
CLEER: What examples have you seen in the solar industry that help to foster a quality workforce in support of a clean energy economy?
Chris: As one of the first solar training organizations in the world, SEI is happy to see leading certification providers such as the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) increase the required number of training hours and real-world experience to even sit for a certification exam. We are also very supportive of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) teaming up with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) to provide an accreditation path for full certificate training programs in addition to the individual workshop and course accreditation found in IREC's ISPQ Credentialing Program standards. Examples like these will really help create standards of quality for our industry.
It is also the responsibility of the actual training providers to be advocates and stewards to our industry by not confusing interested candidates who want to get into this field through muddying the difference between certifications and other formal documentation of training completion like certificate programs. We have seen a quite a bit of this in the last five years and we hope to see it happen less. During SEI's student advising process, we make it very clear that a certificate program is not certification, and vice versa.
CLEER: How is SEI responding to the maturation of the solar training industry?
Chris: We have responded by organizing our individual training courses, workshops, and labs into professional, industry-focused tracks. SEI recently launched a formal certificate program approach in our course offerings and programming across all renewable energy areas. This is why any one of SEI's Solar Professionals Certificate Program paths is at least 120 training contact hours in length. We have always had a very deep and broad library of individual training offerings, and felt it necessary to put these individual courses, labs, and workshops into clear paths toward earning a formal certificate. This approach is based on feedback received over the last few years from many employers within our pool of 20,000+ alumni.
CLEER: Many people are still confused about certificate programs vs. certification. Is one more important than the other?
Chris: They both are important, but are distinctly different. A quality certification program requires ample amounts of training and experience before graduates can even sit for a certification exam. Not to mention ongoing certification maintenance required through continuing education. There is a lot of discussion and still some confusion to newcomers in our industry about this being a "which came first, the chicken or the egg" or "getting your cart before your horse" situation. I totally understand the source of confusion, as many training providers have given the perception that certification comes first - then you get entry into the industry. That is totally backwards and not the intent of leading certification providers such as NABCEP.
Again, certification is only part of the success formula and SEI really believes that a strong training background through a full certificate- program approach will truly prepare someone for this industry while they work toward the experience needed to sit for a professional certification. Solar Energy International fully supports NABCEP's place in our industry as the leading certification provider, but we felt it is necessary to step up the ability for an individual to have formal documentation of successfully completing a rigorous training program. An example of that would be completion of SEI's Solar Professionals Certificate Program. We have received positive feedback from employers and feel this is going to be a great program to take SEI into another 20 years of excellence in renewable energy education.
Visit http://www.solarenergy.org for more information on SEI's Solar Certificates Program or call (970) 963-8855, ext. 107 to speak with a student advisor.