New Jersey developer steps up to fill state’s void of trained solar workers

When the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities announced a three-year community solar pilot program in 2019, many local installers sought to secure a share of the original 75 MW allotment. When an additional 300 MW became available to be awarded over the next two years, a problem became apparent: there were not enough trained solar workers to install these projects.

The 7 MW community solar project in Perth Amboy completed by students Solar Landscape and Edison Job Corps.

Asbury Park-based sunny landscape (No. 87 on the list of best solar contractors of 2021) — which developed New Jersey’s first community solar project, a 7-MW site in Perth Amboy — immediately recognized the need for workforce development.

“We are pretty good in the practice piece. We can get guys and gals up and running pretty quickly,” said Kevin Dunshee, Chief Commercial Officer of Solar Landscape. “When New Jersey rolled out this three-year community solar pilot program, we looked at workforce development in New Jersey and saw very little of it. We realized the state wanted to be 100% renewable by 2050 and realized that we would need well-trained workers.”

sunny landscape first in contact with local community organizations to determine the best way forward. Although COVID-19 temporarily halted the efforts of many of these organizations, Solar Landscape was able to partner with Edison Job Corps, the New Jersey chapter of the Job Corps National Training Program developed by the Department of Labor. Young adults can live onsite on the 25-acre campus in Edison while receiving tuition-free technical career training. The pandemic forced Edison Job Corps to look for a virtual curriculum, and Solar Landscape quickly adapted to provide 100 interested students with free remote solar installation training.

“There is a growing need for workforce development to ensure we meet our climate goals,” said Shaun Keegan, co-founder and CEO of Solar Landscape. “We have found that there is no greater achievement than helping change people’s lives and make a meaningful impact in our community.”

In addition to continuing work with Edison Job Corps, Solar Landscape has developed a Green Ambassador program that provides training to high school students interested in green energy. After attending webinars, students can participate in a “community sustainability challenge” where winners receive portions of a $20,000 scholarship program. To reach even more interested employees, Solar Landscape is partnering with the GAF Roofing Academy to provide trainees with double roofing and solar installation certification.

“We call it educating, training, developing,” Dunshee said. “Education is what we do with high school classrooms. Training is what we do with the professionals in the field of solar installations. Development is what we do to further develop and reward green-thinking students with the scholarship program.”

While job training is key, placement is just as important. Solar Landscape has hired a handful of students trained through the program, but it doesn’t collect all of the best graduates. Through job placement programs, some of Solar Landscape’s “friendly competitors” were also able to take advantage of the talent pool.

“This opportunity has changed my life, for the betterment of my family, my community and to be a bright light in the solar industry,” said Ricky Gass, a certified solar installer through the Edison program and now a contributor to Solar Landscape as he unveiled the Perth Amboy project earlier this year.

Dunshee, a former high school teacher, said seeing the positive results of Solar Landscape’s workforce development is the most rewarding thing he’s done.

“What we’re doing here is having a direct impact on people’s lives by giving them the training,” he said. “All they want is a chance. We were able to do that. The more we’ve done it, the more we want to do. We’re completely focused on that now.”

Solar Landscape, which was just a 30-person construction company four years ago, has grown today to nearly 100 employees with eight employees committed to community engagement (learn more about this successful team and our 2021 Top Solar Changemaker award). Dunshee expects to double that team over the next year while training 500 employees for the New Jersey solar market.

“We were more concerned when we got solar power [projects] and grow. When you reach a certain level of growth or success, you can work on the business,” he said. “We realized after meeting all these different [job placement] organizations that we could do more. although [workforce development] wasn’t necessarily something that was in our schedule along the way, it suddenly became a very important part.”

This story was featured exclusively in our Top Solar Contractors 2021 issue. Check out the issue and full list of the best solar installers in the US here.

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