June 17, 2009

Training students and instructors in renewable energy: Ulster BOCES has it figured out

It was March 2005, when the Ulster County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) Adult Career Education Center in upstate New York, thanks to a NYSERDA grant, began offering non-credit, solar energy training through its Photovoltaic Practitioner Institute. Virginia Carrig, operations manager for the PV Practitioner Institute, has been studying the Ulster BOCES‘ renewable energy…

It was March 2005, when the Ulster County Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) Adult Career Education Center in upstate New York, thanks to a NYSERDA grant, began offering non-credit, solar energy training through its Photovoltaic Practitioner Institute. Virginia Carrig, operations manager for the PV Practitioner Institute, has been studying the Ulster BOCES‘ renewable energy training programs for the past four years.

“What we’re learning,” said Carrig, “informs our current curriculum and is definitely shaping our future.”

The BOCES is an education cooperative that serves as an extension of local school districts. One of the shared educational services offered at BOCES is the Career & Technology Center which prepares high school students and adults for employment and/or post-secondary education. The Adult Education division provides non-credit vocational education, and it’s those vocational classes that prepare students for certification and licenses, such as those found in Ulster BOCES’ photovoltaic program.

According to Carrig, more than 300 adult students have been trained in what she calls the three “core” courses Electrical Theory for Renewable Energy Practitioners, Introduction to PV, and the PV Installer’s Course, as well as electives like PV and the National Electric Code (NEC), and Solar Electric for the Consumer. Ulster BOCES also offers the NABCEP Entry Level Certificate of Knowledge (COK) program and has administered the COK exam seven times since 2005. Carrig says interest has peaked in the COK and so far 35 people (and counting) have registered to take the exam on August 22.

“This is a positive turn of events,” said Carrig, “because it shows that the COK is finding its place as a valuable industry designation and a stepping stone toward eventual full NABCEP Certification.”

Attendance was on the rise before the federal stimulus funding package, but now it’s a straight vertical.

“We’ve got 94 students enrolled in renewable energy courses from both the Winter and Spring/Summer 2009 catalog,” said Carrig. “Our next three PV Installers’ Course classes are already full (up to July 27, 2009).”

In Spring 2008, after five years of training, Carrig surveyed students who completed training in six courses including Introduction to PV Technology; PV Installer’s Course; Building Integrated PV; PV for Skilled Trades People; Renewable Energy Exploration; and PV and the National Electrical Code. She presented the survey’s findings at the 2nd New Ideas in Educating a Workforce in Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Conference on March 19 and 20, 2008 at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York (the 2009 conference is scheduled for November 18-20 in Albany, NY).

“The conclusions were noteworthy,” said Carrig. “For example, the survey showed that the PV industry is attracting a better-educated student base, most of whom are preparing for employment in the solar PV field, even though less than 10% of them have already found work in the field. Many of our students are finally at the point where they are ready to sit for the full certification exam. More than half of the respondents are opting to become NYSERDA-eligible PV installers.”

And while the survey revealed intriguing answers, Carrig wasn’t totally satisfied with the results.

“I didn’t get the kind of feed back that I had hoped to get,” she said. “Perhaps it was the way I designed the questions. Who knows?”

So this year, Carrig began the tedious process of contacting students by telephone.

“This included all of the students we had solicited through last spring’s survey, PLUS all of the new students we trained since spring 2008, a significant number, maybe 80-100 more students. It was not the kind of scientific survey that produces hard data, but the conversations (and some subsequent emails) yielded interesting information from students who have started to work as PV installers or in PV related fields.”

There are some great stories.

Like Chris Patak, a 2006 graduate from Ulster BOCES’s PV Practitioner Institute, who passed the COK exam, interned with Solar Energy Systems in Hawthorne, NY (thanks to New York’s Solar Energy Industries Association’s internship program), and is now employed there as a full time installer. In that role he’s installed PV systems ranging in size from 1.1 kW to 340 kW, became a NYSERDA Eligible Installer, and is currently preparing for the next NABCEP certification exam.

And Kevin Creamer, a 2008 graduate, who opened Sunshine Solar in Port Ewen in 2009. Kevin was a Vice President of Manufacturing for a large lighting firm before becoming a builder. Now he’s reinvented himself once again as a solar and solar thermal entrepreneur and installer. His business, located directly across the street from the Ulster BOCES Career & Techncial Center, serves as a daily reminder to Carrig of the success of the Ulster BOCES PV program.

“Creamer offers twice weekly free seminars to help people understand the value of renewables,” Carrig said. “In addition, he’s hiring fellow Ulster BOCES graduates.”

Explained Creamer, “I founded this company and opened the first showroom with a mission to help my friends and neighbors in the Hudson Valley understand the tremendous advances in clean energy technologies and the substantial government incentives for residential, commercial, municipal and agricultural applications.”

Debra Goudreau, the lone female of 16 classmates in Electrical Theory, Introduction to PV and PV Installer’s class, graduated in 2008 and opened The Main Street Solar Store in Saugerties in 2009. As she proudly says, “There are monumental moments in your life; when you get married, have children and the day you install solar.”

And Tony Cervone, former entrepreneur, who, after spending several weeks in a remote village in Tanzania, designed a solar-powered light that villagers can build themselves. Called the Taa Bora (‘better light’ in Swahili), it triples as a flashlight for walking at night, a reading light, and an overhead light for performing household chores.

Four different people taking solar classes at Ulster BOCES; four different paths to success, helped along by some of the best instructors in the business, like Richard Gottlieb and John Foster, both long-time renewable energy professionals, and NABCEP-certified installers. Gotlieb is working on his application for ISPQ Master Trainer and Foster on his application for ISPQ Certified Trainer.

“What’s good about affiliating with renown credentialing agencies like ISPQ,” said Carrig, “is that students can be assured that what they’re learning is relevant and taught by competent instructors.” Ulster BOCES is currently a candidate for ISPQ accreditation.

Just last fall, to respond to consumer demand, Ulster BOCES added two sections for each of all three course offerings and this spring they added a third. Right now, enrollment is capped at 20 for the Electrical Theory for Renewable Energy Practitioners and Introduction to PV Technology courses. There’s a 15-person limit for the PV Installer Course.

“People come from so far away to take our training,” said Carrig. “We want to make sure they’re getting the training they’ll need to be successful in the workplace, and keeping class sizes small is a good way to ensure that.”

It doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that two instructors to teach multiple sections of three different classes won’t be enough to meet the demand. And then there are the waiting lists.

“Even if we wanted to add more classes,” said Carrig, “we didn’t feel like we could-we simply didn’t have enough qualified trainers.”

So Carrig, along with colleagues from four other BOCES in the Hudson Valley (Southern Westchester BOCES, Putnam- Northern Westchester BOCES, Orange-Ulster BOCES and Sullivan BOCES), came up with the Clean Energy Training Academy (CETA) of the Hudson Valley “…to deliver standardized, high quality training in solar photovoltaic and wind energy installation training programs in the Hudson Valley by creating a pool of knowledgeable, credentialed installers to meet the growing demand for a skilled green collar workforce,” and proposed it to NYSERDA.

It was funded.

“NYSERDA has been the biggest player in renewable energy training in NYS,” said Carrig. “They’re innovative, and it’s put NYS in a real leadership position for training and accreditation activities.”

As part of CETA, Carrig and her colleagues developed the Renewable Energy Training Apprentice (RETA) train-the-trainer program to increase the pool of qualified instructors. In fact, the first class is scheduled for July 13-17 and 20 former students have been selected to participate. At the conclusion of the training, Ulster BOCES and the four other BOCES in the program will be hiring some (if not all) of the new PV installer trainers to teach PV at each of these schools starting in the fall. Both Creamer and Cervone have been accepted into the program.

“The first year, these new teachers will be trained in solar; the second year, small wind,” said Carrig. “Even though each BOCES is its own entity, our goal with the Clean Energy Training Academy of the Hudson Valley is to offer consistent training with a well-developed curriculum, so that the same level of training can be had at any of the five BOCES campuses. This will really help us to serve current students, and to grow the program to accommodate more students and add more technologies.”

Local employers happily support Ulster BOCES’s programs. After all, they end up hiring their graduates.

“We’re always looking for employees with exemplary training,” said Jeff Irish, CEO of Hudson Valley Clean Energy. “Ulster BOCES PV training is becoming our preferred credential – what we look for on a resume. I’ve started telling job applicants to take your courses first because that is what we are now looking for.”

A special thanks to Virginia for her contribution to this article. ed