With electricity, gasoline, and heating oil prices soaring over the past year, ReVision Energy, which installs photovoltaic panels and heat pumps, would seem poised to explode with growth.
The company, which employs 180 in Maine and another 160 in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, is indeed busy with work. But without new staff to train to complete this technical work, ReVision could hit a brick wall.
The problem extends beyond ReVision and its Portland and Montville locations. Vaughan Woodruff, director of the company’s training center, says a recent report noted that nationally, only 6% of workers needed to do energy work are in the pipeline for training. That means there’s a 94% gap in the workforce.
“That’s the huge blind spot that we have in this electrical transition,” he says. As home heating plants and vehicles are increasingly being powered by electricity, the need for trained technicians will grow.
ReVision is doing its part in closing the gap. Woodruff explains that the company hires people and trains them, at its cost, to become licensed electricians. It offers an apprenticeship which provides hands-on experience as well as the required hours of supervised work, and offers the course work at no cost, of which 80% may be completed online.
ReVision employees—who can become co-owners of the company through a stock option—work four, ten-hour days, so those electrician apprentices can do much of the course work on Fridays, weekends, or evenings.
The supervised work is usually 1,800-2,000 hours a year.
“The big benefit is to have good-paying job while taking course work for free.”
Currently, about 70 ReVision employees—40 in Maine—are working toward their electrician licenses. It’s an investment that’s in the company’s best interests.
“We’re growing them,” Woodruff says of those apprentices, “to own their own business with us, since we’re an employee-owned B corp.” B corporations are legally required to consider benefits to workers, suppliers, community, consumers, and the environment.
While newly minted electricians might be tempted to leave ReVision to start their own business, the pay hike that comes with the license tends to persuade them to stay.
“The big benefit is to have good-paying job while taking course work for free,” he says.
But as appealing as the employee ownership and work-to-train benefits are, Woodruff says the company is bumping up against that projected 94 percent worker shortage.
“Our bottleneck is having licensed electricians,” he says. Most of the work ReVision does requires electricians. A licensed electrician can supervise just two apprentices. The company currently has about 20 open positions in Maine, and another 20 elsewhere in New England.
Woodruff has a background in both solar energy and education, and he currently serves on the state’s workforce board. He was lead instructor for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Instructor Training Network in New England and New York and developed and delivered training for instructors from high schools, community colleges, labor unions, and universities to integrate solar into technical training programs.
Not surprisingly, he has strong views on how industries like renewable energy might grow the workforce.
The first step is to revamp how public education discusses trades as a career option and what preliminary courses it offers students who pursue that path, he says. Too often, focusing on vocational education is seen as the last stop before dropping out.
Offering apprenticeships throughout the trades is a winning strategy and “a hugely successful model.” Rather than ask teens and young adults to exclusively sit in a classroom as part of a curriculum, training is more appealing if students can see the rationale for academic preparation on a day-to-day basis in on-the-job scenarios.
“Most of those learners are tactile learners,” he says. “They are out in that environment all the time.”
In addition to its own training initiatives, ReVision works closely with community colleges in southern and central Maine, where electrical technician courses are offered.
Another strategy is to recruit new Mainers—first generation Americans—into the trades.
Yet another strategy ReVision employs is to hire people for non-electrician jobs, such as those who help install heat pumps and do building efficiency assessment work. Finance and sales positions, too, may lead to more technical work such as design, for which ReVision will train.
The trades still suffer from stereotypes, with those working them seen as someone who only turns a wrench or bangs nails, Woodruff says. Not so.
“It’s an amazing gateway into other things,” with all of the trades becoming much more technically sophisticated.
“Until we make a huge investment in how we portray this kind of work,” he says, “we’re in a perilous position.”