For the people who train Australia’s renewables workforce, another year of COVID-19 constraints hasn’t slowed them down. Most reported steady demand for their courses and are stepping up to the challenge of delivering the ever-expanding skillsets needed to work in the renewables industry, writes Poppy Johnston. 

Most registered training organisations (RTOs) and vocational education centres reported steady demand for their courses despite lockdowns in parts of the country.  

Steve Kostoff, chief executive officer of RTO Solar Training Centre, says that training delivery remained strong throughout 2021 despite the impacts of Covid. The pandemic prompted the organisation to deliver training online, where necessary, which he says the team were able to do successfully. 

“Despite Covid, we’ve been able to shift to online and maintain face-to-face classes in some states that were not locked down,” he told Ecogeneration

“I’m very proud of how our business has weathered 2021, and we’re poised towards a very strong 2022.” 

For GSES training programs manager Elizabeth Joannou, the company’s courses were already conducted mostly online, which made it easy to adapt to pandemic restrictions. There is an in-person practical component to the course, however, and she says lockdowns did slow things down a little in those states. 

“Quite a lot of people put off training until lockdown due to the delayed practical side of things. It’s frustrating to start a course and then have to wait for the hands-on session, so a lot of people delayed enrolling.” 

She says now that lockdowns have eased, pre-Covid enrolment levels have returned and she expects growth throughout 2022. 

Richard Cary, the lead vocational teacher for renewable energy and coordinator of the state-wide renewable energy strategy at TAFE Queensland, says demand for standard solar courses continued to bubble away relatively unchanged but he had noticed an uptick in the grid connect with battery endorsements. “Although enrolments are still not coming through in big numbers.” 

What’s coming next 

RTOs and vocational education centres are also working hard to stay abreast of a fast-moving clean energy transition.  

In Queensland, Cary says hydrogen and wind safety courses are now on the TAFE Queensland’s radar. 

In response to growing interest in green hydrogen, the training provider is looking to offer a hydrogen safety skillset through the gas pipeline training package. Similarly, in response to the influx of wind farms in the state, it will be looking to offer the basic safety training courses recognised by the Global Wind Organisation. He says this certification is a common requirement for anyone keen to work in the wind industry. 

The organisation is also trying to inject more background about climate change into its teachings. It will soon start offering the Certificate II in Sustainable Energy certification as an alternative pathway into the electrical industry. The course will not scrimp on the usual technical skills needed to work in the industry but will also include units explaining the rationale for transitioning to clean energy.  

The organisation is also looking to spreads its wings from the Eagle Farm campus in Brisbane and offer training in more locations in Queensland. Helped along by state government funding aimed at boosting future industries, the plan is to expand into training centres in the south west, north, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast to minimise travel for students interested in solar training. Cary says that with the help of government funding, the provider hopes to leverage virtual reality technologies that will allow people to experience practical training without having to travel as much. 

Bill Gammon, the manager of RTO Skillbuild, says that his organisation is also developing new courses. This includes a course for emergency services workers like state emergency services and police who attend EV crashes and have to deal with high voltages. Skillbuild now own three EVs and have auto and electrical staff delivering this training. 

“It’s very exciting times for EVs… there’s a generation of teenagers that will probably never drive an internal combustion engine car.”  

He says for electricians, the EV charging infrastructure is “pretty easy to work out” but the rise of electrified mobility will trigger changes in other professions, such as for auto mechanics, who will also need to be skilled up in electrical work. The prospect of bi-directional charging may also mean training units will need to adapt. 

Solar and batteries suddenly in the political sweet spot  

When it comes to politics, the solar and battery industry has not always been a priority for all pollical parties. But Solar Training Centre’s Kostoff anticipates invigorated attention as the 2022 federal election draws near that will hopefully translate into favourable policies for solar trainers and the industry more generally. 

“We’ll be friends of the election this year compared to previous years.” 

With PM Scott Morrison attending COP26 this year, Kostoff says it’s finally possible to imagine policies designed to boost the solar and battery industry featuring strongly in the campaign platforms for both major parties.   

Keeping the work up to scratch 

 For the clean energy industry, a competent renewables workforce is a vital risk minimisation strategy to ensure workforce issues don’t become a handbrake for the continual growth of renewables. This is something that’s top of mind for Dr Anita Talberg, who in March last year became the Clean Energy Council’s director of workforce development.  

The CEC’s role in training workers to safely and effectively install solar systems is as an accrediting body, Talberg reminds Ecogeneration. Electricians can install solar panels without accreditation but in order to qualify for federal and state rebates, solar installers must be CEC accredited.  

As the accrediting body, the organisation requires installers to do accredited training and learn national units of competency. Installers are then assessed against these units to obtain accreditation. The learning does not stop there: installers that pass must also do continuing professional development (CPD) to ensure they stay abreast of new standards or regulations, for example.  

The existing system for producing competent, safe solar installers works well enough but for Talberg there’s always room for improvement. A big win for the organisation has been the decision to update the units of competency, which haven’t been updated for a decade and have fallen behind advances in technology.  

Another way the industry is looking to raise the bar is through a new working group aimed at catching weaknesses in training programs to help providers improve. It’s only new but the Solar Trainer and Assessor Working Group will feed back information from students after their CEC accreditation assessment to identify patterns of poor performance. “Once you’ve identified weaknesses we can say to training organisations ‘hey, you’re doing really well in these areas and struggling in these other areas, so can we help you develop some better resources?”   

Wear and tear 

Talberg also says maintenance is becoming an issue. She says it’s not uncommon for several years to go by without anyone checking to see if a rooftop solar system is working properly. And, she adds, there’s more to the task than just cleaning.  

“Just like you wouldn’t get your car serviced just anywhere, the same is true of solar panels.”  

She says that even though a CEC accredited installer installs the system, any electrician can be called in to do maintenance. As such, the organisation will be looking to improve training units on maintenance and also looking to raise overall competency across the industry.  

The other area of focus for the organisation will be skilling up a broader cohort in distributed solar. Real estate agents, for example, could benefit from a better understanding of solar systems. Banks are looking to gear cheaper loans to people with clean energy assets and could also benefit from understanding the design and development criteria, as another example. She did stress, however, that only accredited electricians should ever be physically installing solar systems.  

David Tolliday, who has been running the solar training program at Holmesglen TAFE in Melbourne since 2008, would like to see more non-electricians involved in the industry, especially as it may help to encourage more women into the industry.  

“But anybody working in the industry should have some level of training.”  

The same problems remain 

A lingering issue for the PV and renewables training world is keeping material up-to-date as technology progresses. The same is true for the equipment used during training, which needs to be frequently refreshed. But as Joannou notes, updating material is “a constant process” and an inevitable part of the training process. There were also some concerns raised this year that RTOs aren’t being given adequate notice and information about new standards and regulations.  

The industry is also still struggling to attract and retain good trainers, which Tolliday says is an enduring problem for the industry that’s proved difficult to fix. He says, hopefully, that it’s a good job for installers who have the experience under their belts but want something a little easier on the body. 

“It’s a good occupation for people in their twilight years.”