India's solar skills training falls flat, with jobs in industry in short supply

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When Sukhwinder Singh, Mitali Sinh and Raman Sorout signed up to train as solar technicians, they had hoped to find jobs in India’s growing solar-energy sector. But none of them did.

Trained under the Suryamitra program, a flagship project of India’s Skill Council for Green Jobs, all three spent months looking for work in the solar industry but drew a blank.

The program’s main objective is to train high-school leavers and vocational diploma holders as field technicians to operate and manage solar energy projects that are key to meeting India's renewable energy goal of 500 gigawatts by 2030.

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Six years since its inception, the skills program has trained 78,000 people around the country to install solar panels, connect them to grids and maintain batteries.

But government data shows that less than a third of participants have found jobs in the solar industry.

Solar capacity mushroomed from 2,632 megawatts in 2014 to nearly 51 gigawatts by February this year - enough to power more than 1.5 million homes, besides street lighting and water pumps.

Yet there has been slow uptake of rooftop solar schemes in cities while many big solar parks are yet to take off, delayed by challenges in acquiring large tracts of land.

Jobs in the sector, meanwhile, are hard to come by, say energy experts.

“Solar technicians have the potential to become indispensable, just like car mechanics,” said Chetan Singh Solanki, founder of the Energy Swaraj Foundation, a non-profit that works on ways to reduce climate-heating emissions.

“But policies have become bottlenecks, slowing down growth in the sector and reducing job opportunities for thousands who are being trained.”

Data for 2019-2020, analyzed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, shows that of the 16,074 people who were trained and received government certificates, just over two-thirds - 11,025 - did not get jobs in the solar sector.

Trainers said success varied according to the location of large solar projects, tie-ups between some training centers and private firms, and students' willingness to move to remote areas for work, with the states of West Bengal, Telangana and Madhya Pradesh seeing the highest levels of job placement.

But Singh, Sinh and Sorout were not among the lucky ones.

Singh now works in the gardening section of a horticulture department, while Sinh is an assistant forest guard and Sorout is unemployed.

“I heard about the training from a friend and was quite excited because I know the use of solar is increasing,” said Sorout, 23, who lives in Palwal in northern Haryana state with his parents.

“In farms around us, solar pumps are being used for irrigation. I thought after doing the course, I will easily find a job to maintain solar units. It’s been two years and all I am doing is helping with household chores,” he added.

Pandemic problems

Activist Solanki has spent more than 600 days on a solar bus, away from his career as an academic, travelling across India to raise awareness and create a public movement to push for solar energy.

He underlines the fact that the number of jobs created in the renewable power sector will greatly depend on annual additions to capacity, particularly decentralized small grids and rooftop solar systems, where employment is higher.

But the pandemic has put a brake on new renewables projects.

A report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water found that the COVID-19 pandemic saw a sharp decline in hiring in the renewable energy sector, with 48 percent fewer jobs created in 2021 compared to 2019.

In the financial year 2021, the clean energy workforce expanded by only 6,400, compared to more than 12,000 in 2019.

Trained solar technicians find themselves in a job market that has not picked up since the pandemic, with many private firms preferring to hire local electricians on lower wages and train them on the job.

“COVID slowed down both training delivery and industry hiring,” said Deepak Rai, head of standards and research at the Skill Council for Green Jobs.

“There is an immense need to implement collaborative training programs with the industry to ensure that certified trainee(s) are made job-ready,” he added.

The council is mapping its affiliated training centers against today’s workforce and industry requirements, Rai said, adding efforts are underway to meet the evolving requirements of the solar industry.

Tough job

Ankush Jindal entered the solar market with a start-up called Requip, which he recently left, aimed at bridging this gap and creating a network of engineers, technicians and cleaners to install and maintain solar systems.

He pointed to a lack of quality training and poor demand for skilled professionals as a “chicken and egg” situation. A utility-scale solar plant requires an average of 30 visits a year by trained staff for cleaning, maintenance and repairs, Jindal said, adding that if the rooftop solar sector was promoted better, it would create more jobs in the long run.

“While big solar projects can hire some permanent staff, in the rooftop sector, that is not possible by individuals. The idea of annual maintenance is not discussed in rooftop solar, resulting in few jobs and dissatisfied customers,” he added.

The average salary for Suryamitra-certified technicians is 15,000 Indian rupees ($188) a month, but placement agencies point out that private companies often find cheaper, unskilled labor to do the same job.

“In many cases, placements are also in remote locations with little amenities, and technicians are required to work in very difficult circumstances,” said Yogesh Borde, operations head at kWatt Solutions, which runs skilling centers in five states. "Solar is a tough job."

This year, many training centers are yet to even begin the three-month program, keeping applicants on hold as they work out new financial models to sustain the initiative.

Skills centers that were funded by the federal government and provided free training are seeing budget cuts, resulting in stalled courses, according to the operations head of one chain of centers.

Rai noted that the Suryamitra program’s funding model is gradually evolving from a central government scheme to a system where training centers are expected to raise funds or charge students a fee, with some support from states.

Sinh, 24, who now works for the forest department in the eastern state of West Bengal, was one of four girls in her Suryamitra training batch who had heard about the program from the boys at their polytechnic college.

“I was quite excited because solar energy is good energy,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from her home in Jhargram district.

I feel what I learnt in the training was valuable. With jobs difficult to come by these days I had thought that solar was a good opportunity - but I was wrong.”

While the program does mandate institutions to encourage women and rural residents to enroll on the course, the training is largely attended by men in their 20s.

With most skills centers located in cities and teaching primarily in English or Hindi, researchers say the program excludes many, particularly those living near solar parks.

“In rural areas, where large-scale solar utility projects have come up or are in the pipeline, the youth have no information or access to the skill program,” said Bhargavi Rao, a researcher with the Centre for Financial Accountability and a senior fellow at the nonprofit Environment Support Group.

Moreover, the sector rarely provides full-time employment, offers little job security and does not allow collective bargaining for a better work environment, she noted.

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