Green Career Exploratory Program students view solar panels on the rooftop of a Target store in Roseville, Minnesota.
Green Career Exploratory Program students view solar panels on the rooftop of a Target store in Roseville, Minnesota. Credit: Markeeta Keyes / Courtesy

Alexei Haug was attending electrician classes at a Minneapolis vocational school when a posting in his classroom for free solar training drew his attention.

“I thought: Why not?” the 20-year-old Summit Academy student said.

Today, Haug is still studying to become an electrician. He’s also working as an installer for TruNorth Solar, whose owner spoke as part of the free, five-day, 40-hour training program offered by the city of Minneapolis.

“If a year ago you told me I’d be working with renewable energy I would have not believed you,” said Haug, one of five participants to land jobs after the training.

With a growing need for trained workers to help meet clean energy targets, the city of Minneapolis is hoping that free and convenient training opportunities can inspire more people like Haug to join the clean energy workforce.

The Green Career Exploratory Program was created in 2020 as an outgrowth of the city’s Green Cost Share program, which offers various incentives to help residents and businesses pay for solar, energy efficiency, pollution cleanup, and other projects, with larger incentives in environmental justice neighborhoods.

Patrick Hanlon, the city’s director of environmental services who oversees the Green Cost Share program, said that in many neighborhoods, “when you went up on the roofs and saw the contractors, [they] didn’t represent the communities that they were working in.”

The workforce training program is open to all. Through partnerships with other organizations, however, it places an emphasis on recruiting people of color. The city does outreach through middle school and high school instructors, workforce agencies, the Northside training organization Summit Academy OIC and local Black solar company owners and installers.

“It allows us the opportunity to reach the community we want to get to because we have those personal connections and those relationships established,” said Markeeta Keyes, who manages the career program for the city.

The city hired the Midwest Renewable Energy Association to run the training programs, which aim to prepare students for credentialed training. The solar courses are taught at North Minneapolis Regional Apprenticeship Training Center, a hub for students seeking solar and efficiency training owned and operated by local renewable energy entrepreneur Jamez Staples.

“This is a great way to get exposed to the industry and to get skills training,” Staples said. “What [students] do with it from there is totally upon them. We all want to see these people be successful, get a job, and be able to get into the workforce.”

Green Career Exploratory Program participants during a solar construction course.
Green Career Exploratory Program participants during a solar construction course. Credit: Markeeta Keyes / Courtesy

Greta Ladenthin, Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s training manager, said the nonprofit’s Solar Training Academy starts with an introduction to electricity and ends with a hands-on opportunity to build a solar system on a mobile training cart. Some students skip the introductory course because they have already taken an electrician training course through Summit Academy OIC.

“Making it through the entry-level training is a great start for getting into the industry,” Ladenthin said. Students who complete the full series of courses can take an exam through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners to earn a job credential for solar careers.

A 2020 report to the Legislature by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission described the growing need for workers in the energy and utility sectors and the current lack of diversity in those jobs. A lack of skills, experience, and credentials are among the barriers employers reported when hiring.

“Our industry is in dire need of skilled workers and demand continues to grow,” said Gregg Mast, executive director of the nonprofit Clean Energy Economy Minnesota. “Attracting people of all backgrounds to career pathways in clean energy will be key to achieving our vision of 100,000 clean energy jobs in Minnesota by 2030.”

So far, it hasn’t been an easy task. The pandemic, school closures, and everyday challenges faced by lower-income and communities of color have created barriers. Live classes were limited during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some students who started the classes didn’t finish. Yet the city’s goal of annually attracting around 50 students for solar training was achieved in 2020 and 2021.

At least five now have jobs with solar installers, and several went on to city-paid internships with solar companies. Last year, 21 students — 63% of those who took the exam — earned their solar associate certificate from the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners. Even if they do not take the test, students receive a letter of completion and “have a great opportunity to start a career in solar,” Keyes said.

Keyes said the training has made progress but bumped up against the realities of life in low-income communities. For students taking a professional course for credentials, the problem of earning a living intrudes on their attendance and completion. The challenges are expected, though, as the program works to be accessible to a diverse population.

Staples said some students do not live on a bus line and do not have a car available to drive to the training center. In addition, financial pressures cause them to drop out or take a job and not finish the courses. “It’s a difficult population because these people don’t have much money,” Staples said.

Having the training center located in Minneapolis is a benefit. Training offered by the electrician’s union and by the state college system takes place in suburbs miles from the city, making public transit to them for people without vehicles nearly impossible, he said.

Keyes plans to expand the program into energy efficiency in the future through a collaboration with a recently launched Xcel Energy training program delivered by the Center for Energy and Environment. The city’s goal continues to be to connect BIPOC communities with opportunities in clean energy through training. “I’m looking forward to the outcomes and what happens over the next five years in terms of the demographics in the field,” she said.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.