"We know how to take orders. And we know how to think on our own too."

That's how one veteran described the transferrable skills he has learned in the military on a recent solar energy training course at Camp Pendleton. And it's exactly this combination of discipline and initiative that the solar industry is looking for as renewable energy continues to grow at an astounding rate, and as companies seek to build a motivated, knowledgeable workforce in an industry that barely existed 10 to 15 years ago. In fact, according to a recent Solar Foundation report, the industry has been creating jobs 20 times faster than the rest of the economy.

This opportunity — along with the pressing need to solve America's persistent veteran unemployment crisis — must have been at the forefront of President Obama's mind when he announced a push to train 75,000 workers, many of them vets, to enter the solar industry. Here's what he told a gathering at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, as reported by the International Business Times:

“We’ve got to be relentless in our work to grow the economy and create new jobs,” Obama said in front of rows of solar panels at the Hill Air Force Base in Utah. “We’ve got to lead by example, invest in the future and train our workers to get jobs in the clean energy economy.”
But this initiative is not launching out of the blue. In fact, it's the culmination of several successful pilot programs launched under the Department of Energy's “Reach for the Sun” military solar training pilot program a year earlier. The non-profit Solar Energy International (SEI) was responsible for running two of those programs, at Camp Pendleton near San Diego and Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs.

Kathryn Swartz, executive director of SEI, explained to MNN how the pilot programs work: 

"These programs are designed to provide military personnel who are transitioning out of active duty with the technical skills needed to become leaders in the world’s clean energy economy. They take a six-week training course, roughly half of which is classroom theory, and the other half of which is a practical, hands-on course in solar installation. And then they interview with leading solar companies. In fact, of the 20 graduates of our recent course at Camp Pendleton, all 20 were offered jobs at the completion of their courses."

Swartz was not surprised that the graduates were all hired. If there's been one takeaway from the courses, says Swartz, it's been that there is considerable overlap between the skills and discipline taught in the military, and the sometimes grueling requirements of installing and maintaining solar photovoltaic systems:

"I've been hugely impressed by the work ethic of our graduates, and the fact that they understand chain of command. Say something once, and it gets done."

It's not just about following orders, however. Swartz is also quick to point out that veterans have a broad, practical range of skills that can sometimes be hard to come by in the civilian workforce: 

"These veterans are highly skilled. They understand how to use tools and many are familiar with generators. They are well trained in safety guidelines and effective project management skills. They often have an electrical background, and they are definitely used to working in high stress environments. All of this is something that solar operations are looking for in their workforce. 

This perspective was reiterated by Marshall Smith, Operations Recruiting Manager for Solar City, one of the companies that interviewed Camp Pendleton graduates:

“After meeting with the 20 participants during our interviews, I pretty much wanted to make an offer to every one of them. From the veterans we have hired in the past, we have witnessed a great drive, attitude and ability to adapt. Those attributes are clear determining factors contributing to their success.”

There is also another reason why veterans are such a good fit for solar — and that's because they are becoming increasingly exposed to solar and other clean tech as an integral part of their active duty service.

Whether it's the U.S. military's strategic warnings about the threat of global climate change, the army's focus on behavior change for energy efficiency or the growing number of solar installations at military bases at home and abroad, clean energy is simply an operational reality for many service members. It stands to reason that the military's strong push for renewables should translate into jobs for veterans when they leave active service. 

But don't just take it from me. Here are a few veterans talking about their experience. Who knows, with solar getting cheaper all the time, maybe one of these gentlemen will be installing photovoltaic panels on your roof one of these days. Please be sure to thank them for their service. Twice. 

Related on MNN:

Solar and veterans: A match made in heaven?
The rapidly growing solar industry needs a lot of highly skilled employees. And it thinks it knows where to find them.