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Tale of a Reluctant Convert

Kevin Bart became a solar-panel installer because he needed a job. Now he and his wife eat organic food and drink filtered water.

August 31, 2008
Related Topics: Career Development, Future Workplace, Employee Career Development, Workforce Planning
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Work in the building trades for a while, and you’ll encounter a layoff because the economy tanks, your employer goes under or simply because the seasons change.

    It happened to Kevin Bart in 2003, when the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning company he worked for closed. But what happened next gave Bart a new appreciation for job security.

    Though he had labored in construction and HVAC jobs since high school, Bart, 26, could not find work. So he took a short-term gig with Express Coin Laundry upgrading ductwork and dryer vents.

    During the month he was there, installers from Solar Service Inc. in Niles, Illinois, came to upgrade panels on the laundry’s roof. Short one man, they asked Bart to help.

    Brandon Leavitt, president of Solar Service, was so impressed with how fast Bart caught on that he offered him a job on the spot.

    "There’s a huge need right now," Leavitt says.

    Bart’s salary as a solar technician, which he declined to disclose, is about the same as when he was doing HVAC work, though the benefits are better and he gets to take home his company van. But the real perk?

    "Everybody tells me I’m very valuable, that I could walk into almost any solar company in the country and have a job. It makes me feel very confident," he says.

    About 3,600 companies do solar installation nationwide, according to the American Solar Energy Society in Boulder, Colorado. And because the trade requires a wide range of skills, including plumbing and electrical expertise, workers are in high demand.

    If pending federal legislation is passed, it will extend solar tax credits by eight years and solar technicians will "have tremendous stability," says a spokeswoman with the Solar Energy Industries Association in Washington, D.C.

    Solar Service, founded by Leavitt in 1977, installs solar thermal (primarily for heating water) and photovoltaic (for electricity) systems. It outfits everything from single-family homes to apartment buildings to the Olympic-size swimming pool at Governors State University in University Park, Illinois.

    One of Bart’s most challenging jobs was installing a 36-panel solar array on the World’s Largest Laundromat in Berwyn. That system required fitting an extraordinary amount of equipment—including six heat-exchange tanks, two boilers and two storage tanks holding 950 gallons of water—in a 20-foot space under the roof.

    Then there are the challenges of solar discrimination.

    "A lot of people think solar panels are ugly, so we have to put them where they will be aesthetically pleasing," says Bart, recalling a time when a crew had to repair panels broken by rock-throwing neighbors.

    Once "not a greenie," Bart is an eco-convert.

    He and his wife, who have a 2-year-old son, now eat organic food, make their own nontoxic household cleaners and drink filtered water instead of bottled. Their home is a rental, but once they buy, solar panels are a given.

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