Solar Jobs Grow, But Utilities Plan To Hire, Too

Feb 15, 2019

A report issued this week shows jobs in the solar industry in Wisconsin grew by 3 percent in 2018. But the state's largest electric utility, Milwaukee-based We Energies, also hopes more people will consider joining its company. 

The report by The Solar Foundation indicates the U.S. solar industry employed 242,000 people last year. That was down 3 percent nationally.

But the percentage of solar workers in Wisconsin went up 3 percent, to more than 30,00 full-time jobs.  One solar worker who's become almost an industry ambassador in the last few years is Mike Cornell of the Plymouth-based electrical contractor Arch Electric. 

His firm has done work throughout southeast Wisconsin, including installing 1,000 solar panels on the roof of the School Sisters of Saint Francis Sacred Heart building. Cornell says he loves his job.

"We get to go outside almost every day, experience nature almost every day, and we deal with a tremendous customer base," he told WUWM, joking that, “At 45 pounds per solar panel, it's uplifting, for sure!”

Another relatively-new solar industry worker, Catie Malcheski, says she first got interested in cleaner energy by watching former Vice-President Al Gore's famous movie about climate change.

“I had a marketing major, I was going to the University of Northern Iowa and saw An Inconvenient Truth in one of my classes. I was like, 'Oh my goodness, there's a huge problem here.’  I decided to switch to some sort of environmental major," she said.

Solar panels on the side of the Milwaukee Public Museum in downtown Milwaukee.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Malcheski says she worked for a while in energy efficiency programs and is now a project manager at Pewaukee-based SunVest Solar. Last year, SunVest installed rooftop panels at Escuela Verde, a Milwaukee charter school.

But solar installers aren't the only energy companies with a changing workforce.

We Energies says roughly 28 percent of its nearly 3,100 employees will be retirement-eligible in the next five years — that’s more than 800 people.  It's not clear if all those openings would be filled. But the company is showing off its worker training center in West Allis, especially a program that gives Milwaukee public high school students experience in the utility industry.  

Earlier this month, in one demonstration area, a student stood on a garage floor and used a power wrench to practice attaching a horizontal crossbar to a utility pole. Other trainees tried climbing a pole or going up in the bucket of a utility truck to work with fuses.

Pole climbing is an exercise at the We Energies training facility.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Khari Pleas-Carnie is a senior at Bradley Tech High School. He says he doesn't mind that outdoor utility work is often done in the cold and high in the air.

“I like the heights and for the cold, we have to wear these giant rubber sleeves and they produce a lot of heat," Pleas-Carnie said.

Other high schoolers in the We Energies training program may be headed for largely indoor jobs. Reagan High School senior Arianna Morquecho is studying electrical design. She hopes for a career at the utility.

"We do work on actual homes and buildings. It's cool because sometimes I'll be driving and say, 'Oh, I did a project on that building.’ It's cool to say you impacted where you live and the things around you,” Morquecho told WUWM.

Another Reagan High School senior, Alejandro Teo, says he wants to work for a big company, so We Energies would be a good fit.

"Doing a lot of things to improve our community, and improve society overall," he said.

An MPS student (left) tightens a crossbar at the We Energies training facility.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

Teo says We Energies is becoming more green through some use of wind power, and a big, planned solar energy farm. For now, though, We Energies gets most of its electricity from coal, natural gas, or nuclear plants.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who attended the We Energies event, says the Evers Administration plans to encourage more utility jobs to become green jobs.

“Well, they can be, if we transition the way we produce energy in this state. That's what my focus is — on equity and sustainability," Barnes said.

However, Barnes says utilities will need new workers for the foreseeable future. So he supports training programs like the one at We Energies.

Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.

_