For so many industries in the Keys, finding and retaining solid, qualified employees is beginning to seem like a near-impossible task.
But when the island chain has an in-house program turning out prepared graduates in a booming field, that burden is significantly lighter. Just ask new SALT Energy employees Megan Roach and Heather Holley.
Both are 2022 graduates of one of the College of the Florida Keys’ newest programs: an associate in science program in engineering technology with a specialization in renewable energy. Funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation, the program features career training in solar, wind and ocean power technologies. And though all three are certainly valuable divisions, one tends to take precedence in the sunshine of the Keys.
“I call my mom the ‘grandmother of solar’ in New Jersey,” said Holley, describing how her mother started her own business when fewer than 20 solar companies had established themselves in the state. “I just grew up with solar, and then I became more interested in it with a concern for the environment.”
Roach, meanwhile, joined her grandmother in the Keys after making her way through liberal arts, architecture and public health programs at different schools before exploring her interest in renewable energy through CFK.
Praising the guiding influence of Patrick Rice and Vijay Khanal, both women said they were inspired by visits to energy plants across the state before eventually applying for paid internships at the Marathon-based renewable energy company.
As part of the steering committee helping guide the development of CFK’s new program, SALT president Chuck Meier said that seeing locals come through the program as potential hires was of “keen interest” to his team.
“It’s very exciting to us to see that come to fruition, and these are the first two,” he said, describing how the decision to hire both Roach and Holley full-time upon graduation was an easy one after watching them become the company’s jacks of all trades throughout their three-month internships.
“We said, ‘Hey, can we get into design?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, go for it,’” said Holley. “Then we were like, ‘Can we get on jobs and do (solar panel) installations?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, go ahead.’ Now we’re doing sales for a little bit because we want to do that.”
“When they showed up, they were ready to do anything,” said Meier. “The first thing they did in the middle of the summer was jump up on hot roofs and start manhandling panels up and drilling anchors in.”
“They were both eager to learn, quick to learn and flexible,” said SALT vice president Lisa Kaul. “It was kind of a mutual appreciation.”
Even as full-time employees, the pair’s day-to-day responsibilities vary, from office work to visits at potential installation sites – even moving freight on trucks when called upon. For them, the idea of working for a company that caters to providing “energy security” (read: something to keep the lights on if bridges and power lines go down) was one of the key factors in choosing to work for SALT.
And with a proven desire to learn more about all aspects of the industry, the pair said they’re eager to take on as much as the company is willing to give them. Future journeys may take them across south Florida, the Caribbean and the Bahamas as SALT pursues some of its most ambitious projects, some of which are capable of providing more than 90% of the power to small isolated islands.
Just one example: a recent SALT install in Miami provided a Badia Spices warehouse with one of the largest rooftop solar arrays in the state, a 3.2-megawatt system roughly the size of three football fields. For context, that’s roughly 160 times the capacity of the systems used by large homes here in the Keys. More projects are in the works that can’t yet be identified in this newspaper, but should serve as exciting leaps forward for the renewable energy industry.
According to Meier, SALT is proud to serve as a prime success story as CFK continues to build on the successful launch of a new degree program. For companies like his, internships supported by the college could truly hold the key in helping to retain local workforce talent in critical industries.
“We want to be the ones to say, ‘Yeah, the intern program works,’ he said. “It’s a great program. Let’s keep doing more of it.”
“The importance of internships can never be understated,” said CFK president Jonathan Gueverra. “It’s even more important today, because every employer wants somebody with experience. … And even more important than that is the reality that here in the Keys, we suffer from a lot of the same employment shortages, but our problems are really exacerbated.
We can’t bring people in because they can’t afford it. So for the college to be able to educate and train students for jobs that are in high demand that are also high-wage is truly a magnificent thing.”
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