It’s not often I get to do an on-site interview, but on a chilly and brilliant day in January, I headed east from Austin on Hwy 71 to visit SolPowerPeople, a local PV solar training organization. Since 2011, SolPowerPeople has offered quality solar training and education in PV systems design, installation, operations and management to more than 3,000 people from 90 countries.
There’s deep talent and experience at SPP. Of its five principals, two are IREC Certified Master Trainers. One is an IREC Certified Instructor. Three are women, one of whom is a Master Electrician. They all love teaching solar, whether in traditional brick-and-mortar institutions or in their mobile solar training lab.
The van, a retrofitted 2008 Dodge Sprinter, is a cross between a trailer and an SUV (it has its own barn). It would be hard to miss on the highway. Inside, it’s tightly packed with everything needed to install and commission three fully-functional solar PV installations. “Even when it’s fully loaded, the gas mileage isn’t too bad,” laughs SolPowerPeople CEO, Richard Stovall.
I visited with COO Janet Hughes, CEO Richard Stovall and Director of Training Sarah Raymer in the barn that doubles as a classroom and garage.
IREC: Looking at your impressive bios, I see lots of time in the solar industry collectively over many years. How did you all eventually find each other?
JH: I was an electrical contractor for 16 years in Austin, doing installs in the late 80s. By 2004, the local industry exploded due to Austin Energy’s new incentive program. In two years, my company installed 150 systems. I also did larger commercial and government demonstration projects. I began to get requests for industry training. My solar panel representative began to refer people to me from Louisiana because it had just launched a new state tax incentive program (with only two qualified contractors to work the program). I closed my contracting business and have been training full time ever since.
RS: I learned about the Austin Energy solar rebate program and thought what better way to add value to a home than to put solar on it! I took a solar course at Austin Community College. I became Director of Operations at a local solar PV training company the following spring, teaching at the Austin JATC and doing installations and other solar work locally. In 2010, the AJATC won a Department of Labor grant (with ARRA funding) to train 1,000 electricians in a five-state area. My wife and I packed up our young family (a six-month and two year-old toddlers) and, along with Cathy Redson and Ryan Doty, hit the road in our RV to do the work.
IREC: A solar family affair! Five states, 1,000 electricians. And how long were you on the road?
RS: A mere 14 months. But we finished the project and trained all 1,000 electricians. We discovered that we worked well together and complemented each other’s skills. That’s how SolPowerPeople (SPP) came to be: baptism by fire!
IREC: A nice merger of local, home grown talent. SolPowerPeople is a strong proponent of credentials: SPP is an IREC-accredited CE training provider. Cathy is an IREC certified instructor (PV installation professional). Janet, Richard you’re both IREC certified master trainer/PV installation professionals. Janet, I recall you were one of the first women with the IREC Master Trainer credential. Why credentials?
JH: I became an IREC Certified Master Trainer back in 2010. It shows that I follow and teach well-developed professional industry standards. In order for our industry to grow and be sustainable, we have to make sure the installs are of the best quality and the safest possible. These credentials also help us stand out in a highly-competitive industry.
RS: Janet’s right. These credentials are at the core of our existence as solar educators. Back in the day when stimulus funding was the driver for most of the solar education training in the U.S., having these credentials were absolutely essential for gaining access to this funding. Once the federal funding ended, there was more competition chasing fewer training dollars. Like Janet said, having IREC credentials enables us to stand out from our competitors. Having credible credentials keeps us focused, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Most importantly, it reminds us how essential quality training business best practices are, like: continuing education for solar and pedagogy; strong confidentiality protocols; documenting actual solar industry work experience; mapping our curriculum to a JTA (job task analysis). There’s no question. Having and maintaining credible credentials is smart business.
IREC: Agree. Talk about your training. Is it responsive to current market trends? What are you training to?
JH: Absolutely responsive to market trends. We are continuously adjusting our curriculum and adding courses the industry needs. We have seen a strong interest in online and hybrid training. In fact, we recently added two online courses – a 40 contact hour fundamentals course and a 40 contact hour advanced course. In addition to training for solar contractors and installers, there’s a definite training need for firefighters, code officials and utilities. As the industry evolves, so do we. We’ll continue to develop quality courses and curriculum to meet industry need. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.
SR: As trainers, we absolutely have to stay up to date with the most current issues, the latest technology, and what the industry needs.
RS: Let me add to what Janet and Sarah said. What we’ve learned about the solar education market is that it’s good to be flexible. With the Austin JATC and the more than 1,000 electricians trained, we were able to bring our equipment to some 13 different JATC training facilities across five states! From a marketing perspective, it was great. We had a very targeted audience. Still, some infrastructure was required at each of the facilities we taught so that we could interconnect our grid-tied inverter. When we formed SolPowerPeople, we felt the mobile solar training lab would give us more flexibility in where we could offer training. We would take solar training to the people. You’ve seen the van; it’s stocked with all the equipment we need to train. The beauty of this is that we can interconnect our grid-tied inverter without having the complexity or expense of interconnecting to the actual grid. This gives us enormous flexibility and freedom to deliver training anywhere.
IREC: Have mobile solar training lab will travel. Who comes to your classes?
JH: We get a very wide and mixed audience. Solar installers, sales people, estimators and designers, office workers, and business owners in existing solar companies; electricians, roofers, and owners from companies wanting to move into the solar industry; individuals in the industry who want to sit for the NABCEP PV Professional Installer exam; individuals who are already certified and need CE credits to maintain their certification; instructors from community colleges and technical schools; code officials; firefighters; and utility employees.
RS: Electricians, engineers, entrepreneurs, inspectors, roofers and construction professionals, in addition to existing solar installation companies.
SR: The solar market is growing organically. People are coming to this industry because they believe in it. Solar growth is providing fresh opportunity and career change options for a lot of people.
IREC: Maybe the better question would have been, ‘who don’t you get in your classes?’ You’ve got a webinar series, too, yes? A MOOC? http://solpowerpeople.com/solarmooc-academy/
RS: Yes, our #SolarMOOC (massive open online course) has more than 3,000 subscribers in over 90 countries. They tune in for free (yes, I said FREE!) advanced solar education provided through a collaboration with some of the solar industry’s rock star education leaders: Mike Holt, Rebekah Hren, Ryan Mayfield, Dr. Jeffrey Lee Johnson, Johan Alfsen, Jeffry Gilbert, Jim Dunlop, Kenny Grigar, Jeff Spies, Paul Hernday, Karl Rabago, and many others. I love how these folks come together through this platform to share their knowledge.
JH: For me it is keeping up with the industry, code, and technical changes in the industry. The courses need refreshing and updating to stay current.
RS: Without a doubt, the most challenging aspect has been managing the transition away from an ARRA-funded market to a post-ARRA world. Stimulus funding is a double-edged sword. Once the stimulus funding disappeared, we saw many education facilities close their doors. For us, surviving the transition involved drastically cutting expenses and modifying our trajectory. We’re aware of an ever-changing industry, and recognize that to survive and flourish, we must be somewhat visionary rather than reactionary to changing conditions. Today, the demand for quality training is less artificial and more organic.
IREC: To which I’d add more valued and credible. Credentials are at the heart of a strong, reliable, flexible workforce, irrespective of the industry. For solar, it’s not inconsequential to build a highly-qualified, well-trained workforce in such a short time. What would you say to other training providers and trainers about the value of credible industry credentials?
JH: Being credentialed places you in a special network of committed professionals. We’re the people who continue to raise the standards for our professions. It’s how our work and industry continues to improve.
RS: For the IREC credential, I’d tell people to be prepared to work for it—it’s rigorous. That’s not a criticism. That’s a sound compliment to comply with such a high standard. Second, it’s an absolute requirement if you want to be taken seriously in this industry. And third, the things required by the IREC credentialing process are all things you would want to be doing anyway, or should be doing. In that sense, going after the IREC credential enhances and enriches your business practices. Your business benefits. The students benefit. The consumer benefits. It’s a big win-win-win all around.
IREC: Now there’s a sustainable model. And speaking of big wins all around, what do you think about Obama’s America’s College Promise proposal where two years of community college would be free for responsible students? Think it could have an impact on solar training?
RS: Yes, it should have an impact. If by providing unfettered access to higher education increases human capital, then including that initiative on what is arguably the fastest growing sector of the economy (solar and renewables) would yield the greatest dividends to all.
IREC: It’ll be very interesting to watch. What does 2015 look like for SolPowerPeople?
JH: We’ll reach out to more national markets, expanding the training support for community college programs. We’ll be doing more custom, quality training for companies nationwide that are ready to join our industry. And we’ll be engaged with more code officials and firefighters to offer training to them.
SR: We see three areas: 1) work with companies that realize the value of adding solar services to their business model; 2) prepare industry for certification exams from an accredited institution; and 3) expand online training and continue to build relationships with educational institutions. We expect to be busy.
RS: In addition to the things Sarah and Janet said, 2015 has SolPowerPeople moving further up the value chain by offering new courses in support of NABCEP’s new PVSI (Photovoltaic System Inspector) credential expected to roll out by year’s end out. They’re just about to release the draft JTA for public comment. We’ll also offer compressed exam prep courses to help those already employed in the industry who are seeking NABCEP’s upcoming NABCEP Certified Associate credential. We’re busy!
IREC: People are looking for quality. They recognize it when they see it; they’ll seek it (and you) out. If your focus is on creating and delivering quality solar training, you’re going to be busy. Thanks, SolPowerPeople, for the conversation.
All images: SolPowerPeople