ST. LOUIS — A program that trains minorities and women for the fast-growing solar energy workforce is on the edge of expansion here, following a successful trial run over the winter.
The training aims to do three things: Slowly train an army of skilled solar workers, while preparing St. Louis for the needs of a burgeoning field, and lifting up the region’s less fortunate corners, all at once.
“We can take anybody — we don’t discriminate,” said Sal Martinez, the CEO of Employment Connection, a St. Louis nonprofit that helps coordinate the program. “But we know there is a lack of minorities and women in this industry, so we want to do everything we can to recruit them to participate.”
He said last winter’s pilot, with about 10 participants and a waitlist of spillover candidates, proved there was strong interest in the program — momentum that he said has carried over, and grown. The second round of training is expected to start later this month for a similarly sized cohort, kept small as a precaution amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Though details are still being finalized, Martinez expects that both city and St. Louis County residents will be eligible to join the upcoming group of trainees.
Taivon Towns was one of the participants in the program’s first round of training, which spanned two weeks. Shortly afterwards, he was hired by StraightUp Solar, a company focused on installing rooftop solar arrays throughout the region, and one of the entities involved with the program.
Towns now serves as a warehouse technician, outfitting work crews with the materials they’ll need at the sites of specific installations.
He said the instruction from the program — which included general information geared toward electricians — was essential.
“Some of the stuff they taught us, it was invaluable,” he said.
Towns, 25, also firmly supports the program’s mission of ensuring that the industry offers opportunities to the whole spectrum of society — with single moms sharing benefits alongside financially secure suburbanites.
“We’re pushing toward inclusiveness within solar,” he said. “Trying to make sure we satisfy the little guy, also.”
His company also expressed satisfaction with the program, and their involvement in it.
“We see a lot of promise for it,” said Mike Hornitschek, StraightUp Solar’s vice president of strategic development.
The “tailwinds” fueling the industry’s growth create a need for labor, he said. He said the company has a range of open positions right now.
“We think it’s a competitive advantage to bring people in from all walks of life,” said Hornitschek, adding that participation “was an easy decision for us.”
He was particularly optimistic about the job prospects for people who take part in the upcoming round of training — noting that it comes as the strain of the pandemic eases, and around the peak time of year for solar installation.
Employment Connection and the industry both want to expand the program, by reaching new areas, obtaining permanent funding, enlisting more participants, and offering more in-depth training and professional certifications.
Martinez, CEO of the employment nonprofit, said that entry-level pay for individuals hired out of the first round of the program started just shy of $20 an hour. Providing participants with more detailed training or certifications could raise their wages, he said.
He hopes to start similar programs in St. Louis County and St. Clair County.
StraightUp Solar’s Hornitschek said an Illinois initiative is funded by utility ratepayers. He hopes to see such “deliberate” government efforts take root in Missouri and the St. Louis region. He said such an expansion is being assessed, right now.
“There are more than enough examples already out there,” he said. “They don’t have to start from scratch.”