Meet the graduates of Philly School District's first solar training program

Cheikh Gueye, 17, says he can see himself selling solar rooftop systems in Philadelphia, but he’s still unsure of his life’s path.

Gueye was one of 18 students at a small certification ceremony at the Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Benjamin Franklin High School on North Broad Street.  The students had just completed the Philadelphia School District’s first solar-jobs training class, a six-week summer program aimed at providing job-ready skills to public school students interested in green-energy careers. An expanded program with more practical, hands-on training is planned for fall.

Gueye, entering his senior year at the district’s A. Philip Randolph Career Academy, said he learned how solar systems work and how to handle construction permitting.

“I’d most definitely consider going into solar,” Gueye said. “I’d be interested in sales or manufacturing. In my opinion, I feel like I have good people skills.”

The Find Your Power training program was designed by the Philadelphia Energy Authority and the district’s career and technical education office. Through a grant, students were given a stipend to make up for any summer work opportunities they might have missed.

Micah Gold-Markel, 39, one of the instructors of the course, said he identifies with the students.  He graduated from Friends Select School, but did not attend college. His company, Solar States, has hired students from a similar program he has taught for the last four years at Youth Build charter school on North Broad Street.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for people who have ended their education at high school,” Gold-Markel said. “I really want to reach students looking to do something after high school and not going to college. This is a big issue in the United States.”

Gold-Markel said high school graduates should search for careers that are skilled, help the community, and allow them to earn a living wage.

“I think solar can help fill that gap,” he said.

Jobs in the industry are in demand. Gold-Markel said he had trained students to become installers or work in office jobs, including learning how permitting works.

“It’s incredible,” Gold-Markel said. “They come in knowing almost nothing about the solar industry.”

Installers must understand not only solar, but roof structures and some electrical and safety requirements. Hourly wages range from $13.50 to $16 for installers, but climb with experience and professional certifications, such as from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, he said. Yearly salaries can grow to $45,000 and $50,000.

In Philadelphia, per capita income is about $23,000, according to U.S. census data, making a job in solar a well-paying opportunity for a high school graduate.

Camera icon Frank Kummer
Angel Ollison, 17, one of 18 students in the Philadelphia School District’s first solar training program.

Emily Schapira, director of the Philadelphia Energy Authority, said the summer class was more successful than anticipated and that some students had to be turned away. An expanded program with more practical, hands-on training is planned for fall.

“This was sort of our first foray into training and education in solar,” she said. “I think the summer was a total success. I think we are completely surprised and excited at how excited the kids were.”

Schapira’s agency runs Solarize Philly, a program designed to get solar installations at below-market cost to homeowners by the end of 2018. The initiative, launched in April, aimed to create 75 jobs within 18 months . Solarize Philly has three approved solar contractors: Solar States, Solar by Kiss, and Moore Energy, to install 25 megawatts of solar on 5,000 city rooftops by 2020.

So installers are needed, she said.

Alex Hobson of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, said jobs are growing in the industry. At the end of 2016, she said, 260,000 people were employed in the industry, 3,061 of them in Pennsylvania. Though that figure is small compared with solar employment in many other states, it represented a 23 percent growth from the previous year.

Mayor Kenney took part in Friday’s ceremony, along with Council President Darrell  L. Clarke.

“Too often we don’t focus on the jobs of the future,” Clarke said. “We focus on the jobs of the present.”

Though a few of the students said they were not sure about the future, several said they came away with a positive view of the solar industry.

Angel Ollison, 17, said she learned a lot from the course, hoped to attend college, but was not ruling out a career in solar.

Khalil Miller, 17, echoed her thoughts.

“I liked the course,” Miller said. “Now that I know about solar, it’s a possibility.”