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Alternative energy is driving demand for electrical workers — and technical schools must keep up

At the Parkway West Career and Technology Center in Oakdale, high school seniors will soon be able to get hands-on with the components of a solar energy system: the battery, the inverter and the solar panels.

The goal isn’t to prepare them for careers in conservation. It’s to bring today’s electricians into the 21st century, said Michael Leddy, who teaches electrical systems technology.

“When I was in school and I wanted to be an electrician, it was bend pipes and pull wire — it was pretty simple,” said Mr. Leddy, who also works as an electrician for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Works Local #5.

He sees electrical careers — and the trades at large — as an alternative to studying at a four-year college, which he notes is expensive and doesn’t guarantee a job that can easily pay off that debt.

Michael Leddy, electronics technology instructor at Parkway West Career and Technology Center, stands next to part of a new solar panel system at the center in Oakdale (Andrew Stein/Post-Gazette)

AYA Instruments, an electronic parts supplier based in Bloomfield, donated the solar power system that would otherwise have cost between $8,000 and $20,000, depending on the amount of energy it could supply.

This system is 20 amps, meaning it can hold up to 2,400 watts. It could power a space heater that uses 1,600 watts and a refrigerator using 800 watts, explained Carl Lotz, sales manager for AYA.

His vision is to give students hands-on knowledge of how to work with solar energy systems in the field. He cites the oil and gas industries, as well as railroad and transportation sectors, as places that electrical workers may encounter solar.

“This gives them an extra skill level when they apply to conventional electrical jobs,” Mr. Lotz said. “This is another thing they can add to their resume.”

AYA, which has four employees, also may hire some students as interns.

In the past five years, the training center has seen an upswing in enrollment from 500 to 800 high school students in its 12-school region covering suburbs generally south and west of the city such as Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair.

That matches a surging need for electricians, driven not only by increased construction spending but also by the implementation of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind. Electricians will be central in linking those power sources to homes and power grids.

Electrician jobs are projected to grow 9 percent from 666,900 in 2016 to 726,500 in 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, 15 of Mr. Leddy’s 17 students went on to work as electricians upon graduation.

“Demand is insane. Especially in Pittsburgh with the amount of work we have with hospitals and the [Shell] fracking plant in Beaver,” he said. “I get calls from local unions all the time.”

In May 2017, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported about 3,950 workers in Pittsburgh were electricians and their annual median wage was $64,740.

Mr. Leddy said his students expect to attain some level of sophistication with computers while studying for electrical careers.

Today’s electricians will deal with smart homes and increasingly automated buildings, Mr. Lotz added. In restaurants, for example, owners can now monitor energy usage, water flow and freezers to keep an eye on any power failures.

Over time, AYA hopes to bring solar energy systems to the other technical centers in Allegheny County so students miles away from one another can compare and contrast the amount of energy they’re generating through a software package.

“That’s how you produce a microgrid,” Mr. Lotz said.

Courtney Linder: clinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. Twitter: @LinderPG.

Originally posted: http://www.post-gazette.com/business/tech-news/2018/07/05/parkway-west-career-technology-center-pittsburgh-solar-panel-electricians-trade-school/stories/201807030079

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