Two dozen transitioning veterans are prepping for the solar industry

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — After nearly 20 years in active-duty service, Christopher Howe will be leaving the military in April — and his timing, he says, couldn’t have been better.

Howe, a master sergeant at Hill Air Force Base, will be one of about two dozen veterans participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s inaugural “Solar Ready Vets” program at the base. 

The class at Hill falls under a larger DOE program that aims to train 75,000 people to join the solar workforce by 2020. The program was unveiled by President Barack Obama during a visit to Hill in April and has been running for several months at places like Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Carson in Colorado, and at Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.

Part of the program’s focus is to recruit military veterans transitioning out of active-duty service — something Howe has been planning for.

“It’s been in the plans for a while,” Howe said of altering his career path. “Then I heard about this (program) and it just seemed like the timing of it coincided perfectly with my plans. So I started doing some research, and here I am.”

Howe, who works as an aircraft weapons technician in the 388th Fighter Wing, said research reaffirmed his decision to enter the program.

“Everything I’ve seen says this industry is going to continue to grow and solar energy is going to start to surpass some of the other energy industries. And it’s an opportunity to get some free education, so it was like, ‘Why not do this?’ ”

According to the White House, the solar industry added jobs 10 times faster than the rest of the economy in 2014. Since 2010, the average cost of a solar electric system has dropped by 50 percent.

“I’m excited to be a part of it and hopefully get my foot in the door of the industry,” Howe said. 

At Hill, the DOE will partner with Salt Lake Community College, who will provide instructors for training and help graduates of the program interface with employers in the solar industry.

Thaniel Bishop, lead solar instructor with SLCC’s Energy Institute, said by the time the course begins at Hill on Feb. 1, 18 to 24 veterans will be enrolled in the program. About a dozen have already signed up, with several more applications being processed. Bishop said the veterans come from all over the Wasatch Front, not just Hill.

Bishop said the course will feature an online component in addition to classroom work.

“Part of it is to accommodate schedules of veterans who haven’t quite fully transitioned out of the service,” he said. “But it’s also going to be a self-driven learning environment.”

Bishop said veterans in the program will learn skills that will lead to a large variety of careers in solar energy, including management, installation, sales and technical positions.

“As the industry grows and as advancements come along, that will be reflected in the course work,” he said.

The DOE said that the more than 150 veterans who have been through the program so far have received job offers from renewable energy companies participating in the initiative. According to the DOE, starting salaries in the industry average $20 to $24 per hour. 

The program takes eight weeks to complete. It’s currently funded by the DOE, but future funding will come from individual service members’ GI Bill benefits.

Active-duty service members and veterans interested in the program should contact Rebecca Delgado at 801-586-5451 or Capt. Joshua Tate at 801-777-7333.

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