When the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities announced a three-year community solar pilot program in 2019, many local installers scrambled to grab a piece of the initial 75-MW allotment. When another 300 MW opened up to be awarded over the next two years, an issue became apparent: There weren’t enough trained solar workers to install these projects.
Asbury Park-based Solar Landscape (No. 87 on the 2021 Top Solar Contractors list) — which developed New Jersey’s first community solar project, a 7-MW site in Perth Amboy — recognized immediately the need for workforce development.
“We’re pretty good at the training piece. We can get guys and gals up and going pretty quickly,” said Kevin Dunshee, Solar Landscape’s chief commercial officer. “When New Jersey rolled out this three-year community solar pilot program, we looked into workforce development in New Jersey and saw very little of it. Recognizing that the state wanted to be 100% renewable by 2050, we realized we’re going to need well-trained employees.”
Solar Landscape first engaged with local community organizations to determine the best ways forward. Although COVID-19 temporarily halted the efforts of many of these organizations, Solar Landscape was able to partner with Edison Job Corps, the New Jersey chapter of the national Job Corps training program developed by the Department of Labor. Young adults can live on-site at the 25-acre campus in Edison while receiving tuition-free career technical training. The pandemic forced Edison Job Corps to search for virtual curriculum and Solar Landscape quickly adapted to provide 100 interested students with remote, no-cost solar installation training.
“There is a growing need for workforce development to help ensure we meet our climate goals,” said Shaun Keegan, Solar Landscape’s co-founder and CEO. “We have found that there is no greater accomplishment than to help change people’s lives and have a meaningful impact in our community.”
Along with its continuing work with Edison Job Corps, Solar Landscape has developed a Green Ambassador Program that will provide training for high school students interested in green energy. After attending webinars, students can participate in a “community sustainability challenge” where winners receive portions of a $20,000 scholarship program. To reach even more interested workers, Solar Landscape is partnering with the GAF Roofing Academy to provide trainees with dual roofing and solar installation certification.
“We call it: educate, train, develop,” Dunshee said. “Education is what we’re doing with the high school classrooms. Training is what we’re doing with the solar installation professionals. Development is what we’re doing to take green-minded students and develop them further and reward them with the scholarship program.”
While job training is key, placement is just as important. Solar Landscape did hire a handful of students trained through its program, but it’s not hoarding all the best graduates. Through job placement programs, some “friendly competitors” of Solar Landscape were also able to take advantage of the talent pool.
“This opportunity changed my life, for the betterment of my family, my community and to be a bright light in the solar industry,” said Ricky Gass, a certified solar installer through the Edison program and now a Solar Landscape employee, while unveiling the Perth Amboy project earlier this year.
Dunshee, a former high school educator, said seeing the positive results of Solar Landscape’s workforce development is the most rewarding thing he’s done.
“What we’re doing here is having immediate impact on people’s lives by providing them the training,” he said. “All they want is an opportunity. We’ve been able to do that. The more that we’ve done it, the more we want to do. We’re completely focused on this now.”
Solar Landscape, which was just a 30-person construction company four years ago, has grown to almost 100 employees today with eight workers dedicated to community engagement (read more about this successful team and our 2021 Top Solar Changemaker award). Dunshee expects to double that team in the next year while training 500 workers for the New Jersey solar market.
“We were more concerned early on getting solar [projects] and growing. When you get to a certain level of growth or success, you’re able to work on the business,” he said. “We realized after meeting all these different [job placement] organizations that we could be doing more. Although [workforce development] was not necessarily something that was in our planning along the way, it suddenly became a really important part.”