As more Mainers install climate-friendly heat pumps and solar panels, the demand grows for licensed electricians.
In this Jan. 14, 2021, file photo, electrician Zach Newton works on wiring solar panels at the 38-acre solar farm in Oxford. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

As more Mainers install heat pumps and solar panels, the demand grows for licensed electricians. That’s reflected in the climate plan of Gov. Janet Mills, which includes a goal of doubling the clean energy workforce from 14,500 workers to 30,000 workers by the end of the decade.

But one major challenge in the push to build the state’s clean energy workforce is how long it will take to train them all.

This story is part of Maine Public’s series “ Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine’s response, one county at a time.”

That work happens at places like the Capital Area Technical Center in Augusta, where on a recent winter day, 15 students arrived for Michael Parent’s electrical technology class and quickly get to work.

“I’m just disconnecting the wires from the grounding busses, from the breakers and then the neutral busses … then pulling them through the conduit just to get them out,” said 17-year-old Beau Clark of Richmond, who wants to become a master electrician and eventually do commercial work — maybe on solar panels.

The two-year course is full and has a waiting list of 20 students. Upon completion of the class, Parent said the students will be well on their way to becoming journeyman electricians.

“They will have their OSHA 10 safety card, they will have all 576 education hours required to sit for their journeyman test, they’ll need to take an additional 45-hour code test. They also get 1,000 working hours towards their journeyman license,” he said.

But even with all of that under their tool belt, they’ll need up to 7,000 more hours of work experience before they qualify to take the journeyman’s license exam.

As of 2021, the Maine Department of Labor said there were more than 3,500 licensed electricians in the workforce. Last year, a survey of the state’s clean energy sector indicated that there are not enough electricians to meet the existing demand. Respondents said they sometimes have to bring in people from other states to complete projects, at a time when electricians are retiring at a faster rate than new ones are coming on board.

“We’re in this position where we’re growing electricians internally, we’re well-positioned for it, but that said, we’re seeing construction timelines that are more than two times what they have been historically … as a result of market demand and the speed at which we can scale to meet that demand,” said Vaughan Woodruff, training director for South Portland-based Revision Energy, which installs heat pumps and solar arrays.

Woodruff said that, out of necessity, Revision Energy has developed its own training center to double the number of electricians it will need to support the company’s growing list of solar installations — 1,700 across New England in 2023 alone.

Atop a metal roof in the town of China, a Revision Energy crew was recently installing a 7.2-kilowatt-hour solar array.

Apprentice Yasmin Libardi said she has a college degree in psychology, but is now a solar installer earning a living and building a new career at the same time.

“They have an apprenticeship program, so I can become a journeyperson after three or four years, but also I’m working, too, which is good,” Libardi said.

Crew leader Ethan Duffany studied geography in college, but said he wishes he’d learned about trade careers before he went to school.

“I wanted to learn a trade, and get a license and eventually have the freedom and flexibility to live and work wherever I want and make a decent living doing it,” Duffany said.

But even as new energy workers enter the labor pool, the real challenge is the time it takes to recruit and train fully qualified electricians. That’s why Revision Energy is now doing outreach to middle-school students, who will one day do the work that is needed for the state to reach its clean energy goals over the next two decades.

While the push to get more electricians into the workforce gains urgency, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected that the number of employed electricians in the country will grow by 7 percent by 2031, a rate that is only slightly higher than the average for all occupations.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.