Industry Change: Land Development >> Solar Energy
Role Change: Engineer >> Project Manager
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1) What do you do now, and what did you do before?
Formerly, I was a project engineer/manager for land development design and approvals. People/companies came to us with land that they wanted to develop or re-develop. We did much of the research, design and approvals work in-house, and supervised parts that were subbed out to specialists. We were done when the design/approvals were complete and the site was ready to start construction.
Now, I am an EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) project manager for commercial-scale solar projects. This is similar in a few respects to my former work, but entirely different in the type of project (energy vs land development) and wider in extent (covers procurement and construction, in addition to the engineering.)
Both the housing- and the commercial-land development fields took a nose dive in 2007, and I found myself unemployed in early 2008. I’ve weathered previous slumps in the construction industry (most notably in the early ’90s) but by the end of 2009, it seemed clear that this was going to be a much longer slump than anything I’d seen previously. My wife’s career was well established with a single company, so moving to another location was not an option. While shifting to another branch of civil engineering, such as bridge inspection, would have been technically easier for me, the demand in those fields was weak and the supply of civil engineers was high, making it unlikely for me to land a job in an area where I had little specific experience, even if I had a lot of general experience in the wider field. Moreover, even if I was successful in finding such a position, it would have required a considerable decrease in pay.
So, I began to look further afield, for something that was growing. Employers in a growing field are aware that there are more positions than there are experienced workers, and therefore are willing to take on new employees with little or no experience. They are also willing to do some on-the-job-training instead of insisting on finding people who can “hit the deck running”.
I was reluctant to leave the field of civil engineering, which I had my degree in, and where I had spent all of my career. However, I had always had a casual interest in the potential of using solar energy, and when I learned that NJ was the fastest-growing state on the east coast in the solar field, it seemed like a possibility worth pursuing.
Changing careers in your late fifties is tough in some respects. But one thing that made it easier was that, unlike earlier periods, we were not in urgent need of cash. The children were finished with college; we finished paying off the mortgage in 2009, and extended unemployment benefits supplemented my wife’s income. The choices for younger people, and especially for families with only a single income, are much more limited.
We have a saying in our religion that “man is the supreme talisman”. A talisman is typically a magical charm that can do anything. People can do anything they set their minds to. But you need to have the right education. So I starting to look for training in the solar field. Most courses that were available were costing $3,000 to $4,000 for a week’s training in a traditional setting. However, after some searching, I found an online course spanning 6 weeks that allowed you to go at your own pace, with no travel or housing related costs–for only $900. I took this, did some additional training on my own, and then took and passed the solar industry’s entry-level certification test. Having some certification, even if only at the entry level, helps you stand out when you are new to a field.
3) How did you pitch yourself to the desired industry/role? What worked well? In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
Having training and certification but no experience reminded me of what it was like when I was graduating from college. But I didn’t want to start with a job at that level. One thing that you can do easily in mid- to-late career is to start your own consulting firm. Operating a one-man consulting firm out of one’s home these days requires little more than a computer, a dedicated phone line and a website. Using Google Earth and other internet tools to find good sites for residential solar systems is not difficult. Convincing the owners of those sites to switch to solar energy was certainly more challenging, and the work never reached a stage where it provided a significant income. However, it provided me with both real-world experience and employment, both of which are good on a resume.
4) What was the most valuable thing you did in preparation for the new industry/role?
In addition to the training, the certification and starting my own consulting firm, it is always good to have a “Plan B”. In my case, Plan B was to keep my resume circulating, posting it on the major job-seeking websites. I came across a couple of small firms with solar positions that I might fill, but they looked sketchy. However, about 6 months after I started the consulting firm, I was contacted by a technical head-hunting firm that wanted me to interview with a large solar firm whose east coast office was located just 15 minutes away. It was a temporary position, but the company was well known in the industry, so even a temporary assignment with this company would be a big plus on my resume. They were looking for someone who had project management skills, not someone fresh out of school. The fact that I had never managed a solar project was not a deal-breaker. Lots of people in the company were new to this expanding solar industry. They would provide on-the-job training.
So, I took the position. The initial 6-month period stretched out to a year, with 6 projects completed before the company hit a slump and terminated all the temp workers. However, with that experience on my resume, even in the midst of generally high unemployment, I was able to pick up a similar position, at a better salary, and this time as a regular (non-temp) employee, within 3 months.
5) What other advice or insight do you have for readers seeking the same career transition?
Choose a field that is expanding. This is essential. Society has changing needs and we, as its members, need to be willing to adjust ourselves to these new needs. Choose something that interests you, and something for which you have an aptitude, but most of all, choose something that is expanding.
Sometimes the transition will be “rough and tumble”. The current solar industry has been compared to the automobile industry at the start of the 20th century. There were dozens and dozens of companies trying to master that new field. And while many companies did not survive, the overall demand for the products, and for the workers who produce them, grew. When companies folded, their potential customers did not cease looking for the product–they simply switched to buy from the companies that remained. This meant that the surviving companies were hiring the talent that was available from the companies that folded. So stay nimble and grow your skills in your new field. They will be in strong demand as long as the industry is growing.
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