Ed Zinthefer grew up on a Wisconsin farm and quickly realized how much energy can be wasted in agribusiness. In 2003, while renovating his family farm in Plymouth, he began exploring solar energy and harnessing the sun’s power for the property. He was already a Master Electrician with years of experience, starting with exposure of the trade in high school. After crunching numbers and figuring out the financial and environmental benefits of solar energy, Zinthefer installed solar panels on his farm. The success of that project inspired him to start his own solar installation company, Arch Solar.
“My passion for renewable energy really started in my upbringing, spending time on my grandparent’s farm,” Zinthefer said. “Every resource was utilized, everything.”
Arch Solar, a Focus on Energy Trade Ally since 2005, is experiencing what all industries are experiencing right now: a workforce shortage. As baby boomers leave the workforce at a rate of 10,000 workers a day, there aren’t enough younger workers to fill positions. JD Smith, Arch Solar’s Head of Business Development, says the company is constantly looking for motivated and trustworthy installers.
“Someone with a high school diploma or GED can start installing right away and learn the trade on-the-job,” Smith said. “The fact that solar is a newer industry actually benefits employees in the way it level-sets opportunity for everyone to learn from the beginning.”
According to the Associated General Contractors of America, nearly 90% of construction companies nationwide are having trouble finding qualified workers. Builders and contractors need to hire nearly 550,000 additional skilled workers in 2023 to meet demand. Most of the additional trade workers will be needed for infrastructure and clean energy facilities construction.
“I believe the hesitation to take a job in the trades is a systemic problem,” Smith said.
In his state of the Union, President Biden pushed parents to talk to their kids about high paying trade jobs, “paying an average of $130,000 a year, and many do not require a college degree.” According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 54% of first-time college students enrolled in public institutions do not graduate with a degree in four years.
“Like college, the trades are an option,” said Tom Hermann, Youth Apprentice Coordinator/Southwest Milwaukee Consortium School to Career Program. “Our job in education is to show students all of the options out there and not make a value judgment on any of them.”
Hermann works with students participating in the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development program. The Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship (YA) is a work-based learning program for high school juniors and seniors. Students must gain a minimum of 450 hours of on-the-job work experience in combination with earning a minimum of one high school or three college credits of related instruction. When an employer is interested in working with a YA student, they connect with the YA consortium in their area. There are 36 consortia across the state. The Southwest Milwaukee Consortium includes the Franklin, Greendale, Whitnall, Greenfield, and St. Francis school districts. The program is a capstone for the students who are accepted.
“Each student is vetted by their Counselor, Tech Ed teacher, and me,” Hermann said. “Currently, our Consortium has over 100 Youth Apprentices, up from 36 just a few years ago. Twenty-six YAs are in the trades, including: carpentry, electrical, HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning), masonry, welding, and autos.”
YA has 11 occupational area programs and 75 pathway offerings including the Architectural and Construction program with the following construction industry pathways:
The Southwest Milwaukee Consortium has been using Focus on Energy Career Exploration videos and brochures to demonstrate what Trade Allies in the program are doing across the state. Hermann says the resources Focus on Energy offers have been extremely helpful.
“The videos are a great overview for students who may be looking for hands-on/minds-on career opportunities,” Hermann said.
Focus on Energy also offers Trade Allies different ways to connect with teenagers who might already be interested in the trades or those who have no idea these career opportunities are so rewarding.
Contractors and educators can take advantage of all the resources found in the Focus on Energy Career Exploration Workshop. Learn how to plan your own HVAC or Solar Career Exploration Workshop as a teacher. There are different resources for contractors who want to reach out to schools with their own workshop as well as templates for presentations, promotional flyers, and news releases.
Youth Apprenticeship Program graduate Ryan Rush learned about multiple trades and decided on something that always interested him - working with sheet metal and HVAC. He took an apprenticeship with a heating and cooling company and then got a job right out of high school. You can watch his story here.
“The opportunities are immense,” said Jon Hirsch, Auer Steel Director of Business Development. “Almost all HVAC companies are hiring, providing on the job training. We are talking about high paying career opportunities with potential incomes averaging $100,000 a year, not to mention incredible job security.”
Auer Steel recently opened a new, hands-on training center in Milwaukee to help train and educate the newest members of the HVAC workforce. When attending a five-day entry level maintenance class for furnaces or air conditioning, students work with fully functioning HVAC systems in a real-world setting.
“After completing one of our five-day classes, most students are ready to start working a week later,” Hirsch said. “They can perform furnace and AC system maintenance work confidently and competently on equipment that’s five years old or newer.”
Arch Solar says conversations with potential customers have changed from “How does solar work?” to “What can solar do for my particular situation?”. Savvy consumers realize the benefits of renewable energy. Rebates and incentives offered by Focus on Energy, as well as generous tax breaks, are leading to increased interest and exponential growth in solar. However, more workers are needed to complete the influx of projects.
“It’s the difference between selling somebody a car versus selling somebody a harvesting combine,” Smith said. “Everybody has an idea of what you use a car for, but some people have no clue what to do with a combine. Over the last four to five years, we have seen solar move from the mental awareness of a combine to car, and that has allowed the industry to explode.”
Hermann is certain more students are considering the trades and that the trend will continue since the high school programs are expanding in several schools.
“Our trades programs are very strong and growing, as evidenced by Franklin having eight full-time staff in the department and both Greenfield and St. Francis adding one full-time and one part-time (employee), respectively,” Hermann said. “Our Trades Day and Trades Summer Camp are full.”