Job-training partnership for solar installers
Tom Abate, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Clifton Broussard climbed onto a rooftop in Richmond and clipped his retractable harness to a catch bolt as he prepared to help install a solar energy array.
"Safety first," said the 20-year-old trainee, who was getting paid for the work through an innovative program that matches novices with solar-installation veterans.
Broussard recently completed a series of construction, energy-efficiency and solar training programs that culminated with his graduation from Solar Richmond, the nonprofit group that arranged his on-the-job training opportunity.
What makes the program innovative is that homeowners Richard and Barbara Sandow and the two companies involved in the transaction - the solar shopping site One Block Off the Grid and its installation partner groSolar - each contributed $112 to cover the $15-per-hour cost of paying Broussard.
"It's part of an experiment in community-building," said Michele McGeoy, executive director of Solar Richmond, who conceived the on-the-job training component to give trainees a better chance of finding a job in a tough economy. "We're hoping that the homeowner will be excited about having Clifton up on his roof."
The theory behind the program is that homeowners who install solar arrays, and the companies that are profiting from this green trend, will want to give a little extra to help trainees from their communities get jobs.
Homeowner Richard Sandow stood on the sidewalk, watching the work with the satisfaction of knowing that the $13,600 installation would cut his electricity bill close to zero.
"The $112 was like nothing," said Sandow, who was pleased that his extra payment would help Broussard, a Richmond native, gain paid experience toward a job in his chosen career.
Scaling up efforts
Dave Llorens, chief executive of One Block, said his San Francisco firm, a consumer education site that refers interested homeowners to selected installers, started offering the Solar Richmond partnership as a pilot project in December but is now ready to scale up its efforts.
"It's something we can do right now to help some of these kids get jobs," Llorens said.
Jeff Wolfe, chief executive officer of groSolar, a national installation firm with a Bay Area presence, said the idea of homeowners and solar companies teaming up to give trainees experience is a novelty.
"I think we'll see more programs like this springing up in the next 12 months," he said.
McGeoy said that since Solar Richmond started training in August 2007, about 90 graduates have sought careers in solar installation. Of these, 23 have landed permanent jobs. The group has found temporary work for another 32 trainees who have been hired as extra hands by solar-installation companies.
"Our plan is that they'll end up wanting to offer them full-time jobs," she said.
On the rooftop in Richmond, groSolar employees James Rudolph, 39, and Craig Clements, 24, were delighted to show Broussard the tricks of the trade.
"He's a quick learner," said Rudolph, who has been doing solar installations for about three years.
Broussard said he has been out on several temporary jobs and made contact with a couple of installation firms.
"Something is going to open up for me," he said.
Wolfe, with groSolar, said that while hiring may be slow now, there is a long-term opportunity for graduates of training programs because installers are only scratching the surface in terms of market potential.
He said about 22,000 home systems were installed in the United States last year. During the same period, he said 4 million roofs were installed. Roofs, like solar arrays, have a 25-year lifespan, said Wolfe, who envisions that, over time, rooftop solar will become a market capable of sustaining millions of new or replacement units per year.
"There might not be a job when they get out," Wolfe said of today's trainees, "but there will be a job in the future."
E-mail Tom Abate at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page D - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle