Buffalo students train as solar panel installers

Jun 20, 2011

Remember your favorite class in high school? Was it gym, or art, or Spanish?

What if you'd been able to take "solar installation?"

This fall, students at a Buffalo high school will get a chance to learn the ins and outs of installing solar panels. Forty hours in a classroom will earn students at McKinley High School a certification in solar installation from private education company Green Career Institute.

"The idea is to transfer real world vocational skills in the shortest period of time," says Duncan Cleminshaw, President/Senior Technical Trainer at Green Career Institute.

But Cleminshaw admits students won't necessarily be able to get a job in the industry right out of school.

"[At] the rate at which the technology is evolving, the reality is that probably two years from now, big chunks of [the curriculum] will just have to go and be replaced with whatever is new," Cleminshaw says. "The thing about the learning curve in the industry is that you're never really done. You're never really caught up and topped off."
 
There's also the question of how valuable a "certificate in solar installation" actually is - it's unclear to what extent Green Career Institute (a for-profit) is recognized in the solar industry as a stepping stone to employment.
 

But the hand up could be useful. Local developer Daniel Montante offers solar installation in western New York (he's also the force behind "the first solar-ready business park in the country" aka Riverview Solar Technology Park) says western New York lacks a "green" workforce, and will benefit from the training pipeline.

"For the projects we're installing today, whether at Riverview or at third party sites, it's hard to find experienced skilled labor with that kind of background and experience," Montante says.

Vocational studies yield better graduation rates

Students in technical and vocational training programs have shown a higher graduation rate than the average in the Buffalo Public Schools, according to outgoing Buffalo Schools Superintendent James Williams. That's a glimmer of light for a system where the graduation rate recently dropped to 47 percent.

But the solar certificate program will only be available to a miniscule percentage of students. Williams says the district isn't ready to jump in the deep end just yet.

"As we see the success of the first 40 students that are trained, we'll begin to look at the value of it and see if we can move it into other schools," Williams cautions. "I'm being told that these are the jobs of the future. The amount of energy that can be created by having solar panels will reduce our dependency on oil from the Middle East. That's awesome."

Buffalo Public Schools will pay $1,200 for the right to use Green Career Institute's curriculum. For students, it'll be free.