Eighteen high school students gathered around a makeshift utility box as Micah Gold-Markel offered a brief introduction to electricity.

“This is where the meter tells the utility company how much to bill you,” he said, giving a thumbs down. “Everyone say, ‘Boooo!’" The students giggled and booed in unison.

Gold-Markel, the owner of Solar States, a local company that designs, engineers, and installs solar panels, uses dad-like humor to engage the students enrolled in Find Your Power, a six-week paid training program teaching Philadelphia youths the basics of solar installation and clean energy.

The program was started in 2017 by the Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), an independent city agency, to provide jobs in the growing solar workforce and bridge wage and education gaps for the city’s youth. About 14.4% of Philadelphians 16 to 24 are neither in school nor working, according to a 2018 city report.

“This is a job that doesn’t require a college degree, so this could really create a pathway for people coming out of high school who don’t want to go to college," said Laura Rigell, the PEA’s solar manager.

After receiving a $1.25 million award from the Department of Energy, the PEA is about to announce a clean energy program at a local technical high school starting in fall 2020. This program would be for 1,080 hours, compared with the program now, which is 120 hours. If its application for permanent funding from the state’s Department of Education is approved, more programs could pop up across the state, Rigell said.

Until that program launches, the current one, which is free and pays students for their time, offers introductory training in solar installation, electrical engineering, and energy. This cohort, which began on July 8, includes four high school graduates and is the fourth group to go through the program, joining 52 graduates. Gold-Markel teaches the electricity segment, but Spencer Wright, chief education officer of Solar States, leads the course at the Energy Coordinating Agency, a Kensington-based nonprofit. It also hosts one of two free solar training programs for adults in Philly.

For students like Justice Understanding, who is not interested in pursuing college right away, this could be a path to work.

The ECA, in partnership with the Philadelphia Energy Authority, created a solar installation training program for high schoolers. Justice Understanding, 21, listens to instructions at the training center in Philadelphia, PA on July 24, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
The ECA, in partnership with the Philadelphia Energy Authority, created a solar installation training program for high schoolers. Justice Understanding, 21, listens to instructions at the training center in Philadelphia, PA on July 24, 2019.

Understanding, a recent graduate of William Bodine High School, saw the program as a chance to learn skills before he starts job hunting in the fall.

“I’ve always been fascinated with solar,” said the 21-year-old from Wynnefield. “This was a way to explore another thing I wanted to know more about.”

Once he graduates from the program on Aug. 16, he can add those skills to a resumé that includes the small tax business he created last year and his part-time work in horse stables during the week.

He and his classmates are paid $8 an hourfor attending the course, which runs from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The PEA started the program after discussing the national demand for solar installers with the Philadelphia School District’s career and technical education office. Solar installation jobs were recently 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.

“As the number of solar jobs grows in Philadelphia, we need to make sure that the younger generation is ready to step into these positions as they come out of school,” said Rigell.

Kayla Brown, 18, left, and Justice Understanding, 21, work together on a simulated roof at the Energy Coordinating Agency's simulated roof in Kensington.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Kayla Brown, 18, left, and Justice Understanding, 21, work together on a simulated roof at the Energy Coordinating Agency's simulated roof in Kensington.

Kayla Brown of Northeast Philadelphia applied for the training after her mother, Angelita Brown, read about it in the Northeast Times.

The 18-year-old recent graduate of Abington Friends School in Jenkintown is set to study architecture at Drexel University in the fall, and thought that expanding her skills in engineering and construction could give her an edge.

“I’m really interested in seeing how the environment impacts different people,” she said. She wants to incorporate solar into her future designs, and mentioned an idea to build panels shaped like hexagons or octagons and then compare the efficiency. “Why not combine what I’ve been doing with a job that makes an impact on people?”