It’s all part of Czar McMichael Bey’s plan: Graduate from one of Philadelphia’s solar training programs, find a job in the growing industry, and then in 10 years, open his own company.
The 20-year-old from Chester with bright eyes and loads of ambition made the first part of his dream happen late last month. Bey had his first job interview with an installer after he joined 27 adults in graduating from a free eight-week training course that teaches people how to install solar photovoltaic panels onto roofs.
Bey saw the program offered by the Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) for unemployed and underemployed people, as a way to combine his environmental interests with an in-demand job.
Bey still faces challenges with transportation to work, but he’s pretty amped up. “They say one person can’t change the world, but I can try to give it a nudge,” he said.
This training, one of two opportunities for low income Philadelphians to learn the trade, aims to shrink the energy industry’s workforce divide while adding to its growing solar installation workforce -- identified as the nation’s fastest growing occupation in a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency expects the 11,300 current jobs, which pay $42,680 a year, to more than double by 2026.
Philadelphia’s solar market has a lot of catching up to do. Pennsylvania’s clean energy job market grew by 6 percent to reach 90,772 jobs last year, but that lags far behind Massachusetts, which has half as many residents as Pennsylvania but four times as many solar jobs.
The OIC’s program is funded by a $50,000 per year grant from Peco, said Will Davison Jr., vice president of OIC Marketing.
“We have a social responsibility, not just an economic one. We have to serve everyone,” said Douglas Oliver, Peco’s vice president of communications.
“Not everybody can afford to just go buy solar panels and put them on their roof,” said Oliver. “Half the people can’t afford to fix their roofs.” He said that as Americans move down a more sustainable path, lower income folks cannot be left behind.
Peco approached OIC in 2018 about starting the Smart Energy Technical Training Program, which Bey took. The first cohort started in June 2018, and 28 adults have graduated to date.
About 30 applications were received for the 15 spots in the most recent class, said Latoya Edmond, vice president of OIC’s workforce development. Some drop out because of a lack of transportation or family issues. Applicants must be at least 18 and pass a written and physical exam, which includes lifting 50 pounds and climbing a ladder.
Participants connect with employers before they graduate, and then after the ceremony, multiple firms host on-site interviews. The June 27th graduates could interview with five firms: Arsenal Solar, Kiss Electric, Momentum Solar, Solar States, and Vivint Solar.
The program had a 90 percent job-placement rate for its first two cohorts. Just over half of the graduates are working in solar, said Edmond, and because the program provides general energy training, graduates can explore jobs in multiple sectors.
The course is taught by Spencer Wright, chief education officer of Solar States, which designs, engineers, and installs solar panels. Wright also teaches a solar panel installation course at the Energy Coordinating Agency (ECA), a Kensington-based nonprofit that specializes in weatherizing homes for low-income residents.
“To make this solar army, we need everyone to participate,” said Wright, of North Philadelphia. “The green wave lifts all boats,” he added, quoting The Green Collar Economy, a 2008 book by Van Jones that outlines a plan for solving inequality and environmental problems.
The ECA offers six energy training programs, such as energy auditing and environmental remediation, through its Knight Green Jobs Training Center. The agency started the solar program, funded by Philadelphia Works, a workforce development center, at the end of 2017.
The program has graduated 42 people, and trainees have an 87 percent job-placement rate, said Walter Yakabosky, ECA’s director of training. He said all the program’s graduates have gone into the solar industry -- about 80 percent became panel installers while the others went into distribution, sales, and electrical.
The ECA and OIC programs share the same coursework -- with an emphasis on hands-on installations on a life-size roof inside the centers.
Riding the green wave
Bey didn’t always see solar as an option. Born into a family of musicians and artists, this self-proclaimed “Renaissance man” pursued music, film, and culinary arts after graduating from Martin Luther King Jr. High School in 2017. To support himself, he started working for his grandfather’s construction company, but his natural interest in the environment was always there.
Then Bey’s grandmother, Zenobia Hendricks of North Philadelphia, told him in January about OIC’s solar training after an engineer who worked on her house recommended the program.
“I feel really good. I just graduated, so I feel great,” said Bey. “I worked hard for it, so I believe I’ll get hired.”
However, transportation remains a hurdle. Bey and fellow graduate, Zamere Howard, 25, lack driver’s licenses. Most solar jobs require reliable transportation and can send employees over state lines. The two can’t get hired right now.
OIC is now requiring applicants to have a driver’s license and is seeking a transportation provider to take graduates to their jobs.
For Sawandi Starling-Shah, another recent OIC graduate, his parole limits his travel. The 30-year-old from Strawberry Mansion was offered a job installing panels in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., but had to turn it down.
When Starling-Shah was in his early 20s, he was charged with conspiracy to distribute 400 grams of cocaine, and said that he spent a combined 40 months in local jail and state prison.
“Coming back into society with felonies and little-to-no job history, I was fortunate to find work in construction,” he said. He heard about the solar training program while volunteering for Philadelphia Ceasefire, a violence-intervention program. Applying was a “no brainer," because the job was in a growing field, and would “save people money while saving the environment.”
"It’s a great program with a lot of opportunity,” said Starling-Shah. "This could be something that prevents a kid from going back into a cycle that gets them put in jail.”