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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin solar installers face challenges in finding enough workers to meet growing demand

Mid-State Technical College students learn the ins and outs of solar installation.
Mid-State Technical College
Mid-State Technical College students learn the ins and outs of solar installation.

Renewable energy is considered a cornerstone of a sustainable future. Solar power generation is a key element—one that’s growing.

In fact, jobs in the solar industry in the U.S. increased by more than 9% from 2020 to 2021. That’s according to the National Solar Jobs Census published this week.

To dive into the state of solar careers in Wisconsin, WUWM's Susan Bence visited the recent energy fair put on by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.

READ Groups Across Wisconsin Are Focused On Creating More Solar Energy

The event in Custer, Wisconsin each summer attracts thousands of visitors, not just from within the state but from all over the place.

Some are do-it-yourselfers who want to avoid the grid altogether. Others are looking for the latest technologies and flock to tents where experts share their wisdom and inventions.

For Benjamin Nusz the fair is strictly business. “I’m Stevens Point campus dean of the Mid-State Technical College,” he says.

Nusz says his technical college created the program back in 2008. “Our students are prepared to become solar installers but also solar designers and consultants and site assessors.”

Over the two-year curriculum students get a taste of multiple trades.

“Students in their very first semester will obtain a construction trades technical diploma, and that’s really a feeder into all of the building trades. Some of them take that and become plumbers, electricians, HVAC installers, or carpenters,” Nusz says.

Nusz says all trades are critical in building out Wisconsin’s renewable energy capacity.

“And we’re seeing some quite healthy enrollments in our programs across the building trades. Despite changes with supply chain issues and getting materials, we’re still doing a lot of construction and we’re still doing a lot of building,” Nusz observes.

Nusz notes developers are beginning to incorporate solar in the initial design phase. “We’re now starting to see that solar becomes an essential part of all buildings.”

Northwinds Solar among Wisconsin installation companies scrambling to add staff to meet growing market.
Susan Bence
Northwind Solar among Wisconsin installation companies scrambling to add staff to meet growing market.

Doug Stingle is the service manager of Northwind Solar, based out of Stevens Point. Stingle says many of the worker-owned company’s solar installers are Mid-State College alums.

Still, Stingle like other business representatives says it's hard finding new employees.

"We’re having a hard time like people just not showing up for their interviews, or they call you and they say ‘hey, I took a different job yesterday so I’m not coming in for the interview’,” Stingle says.

Stingle says he could use five additional team members right now.

Russell Endreis is in the market for solar installers and an electrician. An electrician himself, Endreis’ business is based south of Sheboygan in Oostburg, Wisconsin.

“It is hard to find employees. It’s hard to find employees who are willing, I guess I would say, to do what we do. There’s travel involved, and hot days on roofs and heavy lifting,” Endreis says.

It might not sound terribly appealing, but Endreis says he loves what he does..

“It’s a very good job, pays well. Just like any job, there are good days and bad days. Some days you may be crawling in an attic but it’s gratifying too at the end of the day you can see you’ve just built something with your own hands and if you have a happy customer at the end of the day,” Endreis says.

(Left to right) Samantha Howk, Tyler Weber and Jennifer Larson are new to the solar installation industry.
Susan Bence
(Left to right) Samantha Howk, Tyler Weber and Jennifer Larson are new to the solar installation industry.

Jennifer Larson based in Milwaukee credits the pandemic for motivating her to evaluate her life and work.

“I was in the fashion industry working on print and pattern design, and I’d always been interested in green energy,” Larson says.

Larson recently joined a solar installation company. “I’m so proud to be able to say I’m doing something that’s good for the planet” Larson says.

Madison-based Samantha Howk says her path to the solar field was similar, but her previous career was in sales.

“When the pandemic hit it really kind of solidified feelings that had been growing of 'yeah I can sell spatulas or I can sell coffeemakers, but I would rather do something that makes a difference,' a tangible different in the world and in my community,” Howk says.

Student Tyler Weber isn’t sure how his career will evolve. He was just five days into a summer internship with Arch Electric, the company Howk and Larson recently joined.

“I’m going for an associates degree in business management and then a certificate in renewable energy at Madison College,” Weber says.

He’s a bit tentative about the solar installation side of things. “I have a little bit of a fear of heights, so I wouldn’t like to climb on the roof, but I’m not opposed to doing it and getting up there and learning it,” Weber says.

Nick Hylla says it’s up those immersed in the clean energy arena to let the Tyler Webers of the world know there is a wide array of jobs emerging.

Hylla is executive director of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, the energy fair organizer.

“It’s hard for young people to understand what careers are there and how fast is it growing, “ Hylla says. ”The reality is we need young people in droves from laborers to electricians, to certified installers, to engineers, to sales people, policymakers.”

MREA awards scholarships to encourage the droves Hylla says will be needed for the clean energy transition, including young people living underserved communities. Hylla says he’s hoping to raise more funds to encourage leadership within the next generation.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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