First Lady Announces Solar Industry Plan to Hire 50,000 Military Veterans By 2020

Solar Ready Vets, Fort Carson

I've written before about how the solar industry and the nation's veterans make a great team. That's why First Lady Michelle Obama's announcement last week that the solar industry has committed to hiring an additional 33,000 veterans and their spouses by 2020 is such very good news for our country. "Veterans bring rich and diverse skills, leadership and experience that can help in every portion of the industry value chain," said Tom Kimbis, vice president for executive affairs & government counsel at the Solar Energy Industries Association, the country's major solar trade group, about last week's announcement. "We are not talking about installers alone; veterans can excel from rooftop to boardroom."

This commitment is good news for all of us, but especially for veterans and their families: As a group, they suffer high unemployment rates--1.6 percentage points higher than the general population--and report that finding a job is one of the most difficult challenges they face when returning to civilian life. Here, the solar industry has much to offer. Having added an astounding 81,000 jobs in the last four years, and more than 31,000 jobs last year alone, it's growing at a rate 20 times that of the nation's economy as a whole, with opportunities in almost every state in the nation. In fact, the solar industry is growing so fast that it will likely install as many gigawatts of solar power over the next two years--20 gigawatts, to be precise--as it has from the time solar was invented until now. (Twenty gigawatts, by the way, produces enough electricity to power 3.2 million homes.) To keep this exponential growth going, we need to continue and expand upon the important suite of policies that promote solar's growth--in particular, the solar investment tax credit, set to expire at the end of 2016.

Participants in the Department of Energy's Solar Ready Vets program, which teaches solar job skills to service members transitioning out of the military, are among the 33,000 veterans the solar industry hopes to hire by 2020. (photo credit: Solar Energy International)

Solar jobs are a purposeful commitment to our community and environment

After all, the jobs the solar industry offers are good jobs, the kind of jobs we need more of as a nation. To entry-level workers, most of whom have only high school degrees, the industry provides wages that average between $20-24 a hour, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2014. (Compare that with the low-wage jobs available to many high school graduates.) These jobs also give many veterans a sense of purpose, enabling them continue their service to our country and help make the world a better place every day.

For the industry, this is a match made in heaven, too. Seventeen thousand veterans already work in the solar industry. And because of their experience in the military, veterans often make ideal employees for the solar industry. "Our company is a team environment and we need people who understand working together in teams," says Otis Collier, diversity and inclusion manager at SolarCity, one of the country's largest solar companies. "We need hard workers and veterans are used to getting the job done. And most vets bring basic mechanical skills with them. That's very helpful for what we do." For the solar industry, having access to veterans looking for civilian careers solves an important problem: "Like any industry that is on a fast growth path, finding more and more skilled employees to meet demand is a challenge," Kimbis says.

For the rest of us, there's much to gain when the solar industry and military veterans join forces: Their efforts protect our country by reducing the dangers of climate change, a problem top military officials have called "a threat multiplier." Together, they increase our energy independence and lower the cost of energy for millions of Americans--for both those with solar installed on their properties and those without--by reducing peak electric loads and obviating the need for expensive new power plants that we all pay for on our electric bills. (The higher the peak load, the more our power costs spike.) They help make the air our kids breathe cleaner by reducing the needs for polluting power plants. And they build domestic industries that can't be shipped overseas.

The Obama Administration's clean energy jobs deployment

Realizing the benefits that such a collaboration can bring, this September the U.S. Department of Energy, working in concert with the Department of Defense, created the Solar Ready Vets program to train exiting service members in solar job skills. "We know this is a highly skilled workforce," Minh Le, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy's SunShot Initiative, told NRDC. (The SunShot Initiative is the federal government's effort to make solar cost-competitive with polluting electricity by 2020.) "It's a way to take a highly skilled workforce and transition them into good paying jobs."

Solar Ready Vets offers four-to-six weeks of hands-on training. The first pilot program, with 20 trainees at the Marine's Camp Pendleton in Southern California, finished their program in February and were promptly offered jobs by Vivint Solar, one of the country's largest solar installers, as well as by SolarCity. On April 6th, President Obama announced that the Solar Ready Vets program would expand to 10 bases across the country, including Fort Carson in Colorado and the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia. And last week, five senators wrote to the Senate Appropriations Committee panel that sets the DOE budget to ask for the program's funding to be doubled. That's something that appeals Collier, himself a 10-year veteran of the US Navy. "Solar City has a rapid growth rate. This program can provide us with a pipeline of trainees."

SEIA's Kimbis says the First Lady's announcement last week "is just the beginning of the good news." In other words, expect more announcements soon about the solar industry's efforts to employ vets.

It's great to watch this beautiful synergy between veterans and the solar industry continue to build. We can promote it further when we support policies, like the solar investment tax credit, that support our military vets.