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Solar installers, wind turbine techs fastest growing jobs in the nation

Dan Tyne, a technician with Nelson Electric of Cedar Rapids, installs solar panels on the roof of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Dan Tyne, a technician with Nelson Electric of Cedar Rapids, installs solar panels on the roof of Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids in 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Solar installers have narrowly edged out wind turbine technicians as the fastest growing occupation in the country — with both renewable energy professions leading the nation in projected growth.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections for 2016 to 2026, updated this past month, list solar photovoltaic installer as the fastest growing profession in the United States, with the position expected to grow by nearly 105 percent over that decade.

While wind turbine technicians have fallen to second, the profession still is projected to grow by 96 percent over the 10-year span.

The next closest profession on the bureau’s list, home health aide, is projected to see a 47 percent increase in workers from 2016 to 2026.

Tim Arnold, Kirkwood Community College’s associate professor of energy production and distribution technology, said increased interest among prospective students in both renewable energy fields has driven an adaptation of the school’s wind turbine technician program now to include a solar component.

“We thought making adjustments made a lot of sense considering where the renewable energy field is going,” Arnold said. “In order to be responsive, last year we started the process of updating our curriculum to encompass both wind and solar.”

Kirkwood’s new renewable energy and distribution program, which remains a five-semester course, will begin this fall.

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In the solar industry, North Liberty-based solar company Moxie became one of the state’s early adopters of solar when it began operations in 2008. Company founder Jason Hall said Moxie has grown from seven employees in fewer than five years ago to close to 100 — with the large majority of those employees in Iowa.

Hall attributed growth in jobs to the strength of the solar market across the state, which has been driven largely by the falling cost of installing solar arrays. Hall said the cost has dropped from about $8 per watt a decade ago to around $3 per watt.

“There’s never been a better time, from an economics point of view, to purchase solar,” he said.

Growth in solar has allowed the company to expand into other states including Illinois, Texas, Ohio, Indiana and Colorado.

“We’re kind of creating our own sales markets at this point, so as we add sales people and locations, we just naturally continue to grow,” Hall said.

Nationwide, solar installers are projected to see more growth in the coming years compared to any other occupation — but the profession still represents a fraction of the total workforce. There were about 11,300 solar installers in 2016, with the industry expected to reach close 23,100 in 2026.

That’s compared to more than 156 million non-farm workers across the country in 2016, according to the bureau’s Occupational Employment Statistics program.

The median annual wage for a solar installer last year was more than $42,000, compared to the median annual wage of less than $39,000 for all occupations.

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Wind energy, which represents more than one-third of the state’s power generation, also has seen exponential growth. The Iowa Environmental Council estimated last year that 2,600 megawatts worth of wind turbines were under construction and another roughly 1,800 megawatts were in advanced development.

Wind turbine service technicians, which led the nation as the fastest growing profession in 2017, has fallen to second, yet still is anticipated to grow from about 5,800 people in 2016 to 11,300 in 2026, marking an approximately 96 percent increase, according to the bureau.

Turbine technicians earned a median annual wage of about $54,000 last year.

Arnold said Kirkwood’s program takes in 18 new students each semester, with the new solar and wind program expected to be in even higher demand.

“I fully anticipate we will have a waiting list this year,” he said.

Arnold added that many skills of a wind turbine technician — such as electrical troubleshooting, wiring and diagnosis and repair — are applicable to the solar industry.

Solar Diversity Report

As the nation’s solar market grows, a new report has found the industry falls slightly behind the U.S. workforce in terms of diversity.

The U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study 2019 — completed by the Solar Foundation and Solar Energy Industries Association — found that women and blacks remain underrepresented in the industry.

The study found that, while women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they only represent about a quarter of the solar workforce.

Blacks make up 12 percent of the U.S. workforce, yet only about 8 percent of the solar workforce, according to the study.

Nearly 90 percent of senior executives in solar are white, while 80 percent are men.

What’s more, a gender wage gap also exists in solar professions — with women making 74 cents on the dollar compared to men, according to the report.

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The study does note that an increasing number of solar companies are tracking diversity, as well as creating strategies to address such matters.

“The industry is not immune to the challenges the wider business community faces in fostering a diverse and inclusive workforce,” the report states. “It is a very encouraging sign that leaders across the solar industry are identifying diversity and inclusion as top priorities.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8309; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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