Thursday, August 16, 2012

Green Jobs Series: Careers in Solar Power [Second Installment]

The vast majority of solar manufacturing firms focus mainly on photovoltaic solar power and producing photovoltaic panels. The production process for photovoltaic panels is more complex than for concentrating solar power (CSP) components, and it involves complicated electronics. This installment of The Daily Leap's green job series describes some of the most common jobs in manufacturing of solar power.

Occupations in Manufacturing for Solar Power

Making photovoltaic panels requires the work of many skilled workers, including semiconductor processors, computer-controlled machine tool operators, glaziers, and coating and painting workers. The manufacture of CSP mirrors includes many of the same occupations.

Job Duties

Semiconductor processors are workers who oversee the manufacturing process of solar cells. They test completed cells and perform diagnostic analyses. Semiconductor processors are required to wear special lightweight outer garments known as "bunny suits" and spend most of their day working in clean rooms to prevent contamination of the cells and circuitry.

Computer-controlled machine tool operators are workers who run computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, a machine tool that forms and shapes solar mirror or panel components. Some of the more highly trained CNC workers also program the machines to cut new pieces according to design schematics. CNC operators use machines to mass-produce components that require highly precise cutting. In the solar power industry, they manufacture precisely designed mirrors for CSP plants and many of the components of photovoltaic panels.

Welding, soldering, and brazing workers apply heat to metal pieces during the manufacturing process, melting and fusing them to form a permanent bond. Welders join two or more pieces of metal by melting them together. Soldering and brazing workers use a metal with a lower melting point than that of the original piece, so only the added metal is melted, preventing the piece from warping or distorting.

Glaziers are responsible for selecting, cutting, installing, replacing, and removing glass or glass-like materials. The glaziers are responsible for measuring and cutting the glass or laminate to cover the panel; securing it in place; and sealing it using rubber, vinyl, or silicone compounds.

Coating and painting machine setters, operators, and tenders apply coatings to solar panels, which can be a complicated process that must be done with a high level of precision. It is their job to set up the systems, add solvents, monitor the equipment, and feed the pieces through the machines. Workers are usually required to wear masks and special suits to protect them from hazardous fumes produced by paint, solvents, and other chemicals.

Electrical and electronics installers and repairers work on a number of the complex electronic equipment that the solar industry depends on for a variety of functions. Manufacturers use industrial controls to automatically monitor and direct production processes on the factory floor.

Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers put together the final products and the components that go into them. They are responsible for assembling the complex electrical circuitry in a photovoltaic panel, as well as assembling the components that connect to solar panels. Many of these assemblers operate automated systems to assemble small electronic parts that are too small or fragile for human assembly.

Industrial production managers plan, direct, and coordinate work on the factory floor. They keep production runs on schedule, and are responsible for solving problems that could jeopardize the quality of the components.

Education and Training

The level and type of training necessary for occupations in the solar power manufacturing process varies. Most production workers are trained on the job and gain expertise with experience. Workers in more skilled positions, such as computer-controlled machine tool operators, may attend formal training programs or apprenticeships. Experience working with electronics or semiconductors may be helpful for some of these occupations. Industrial production managers are typically required to have college degrees in business administration, management, industrial technology, or engineering.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have wage data specific to the solar power industry. However, BLS does track wage data for the semiconductor and other electronic component manufacturing industry group, which includes production of solar panels. The table shows BLS data for selected occupations in this industry group for May 2010. The wages shown are median annual wages for the United States as a whole; wages vary by employer and location.

Occupation Median annual wage
Semiconductor processors $32,880
Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic $31,470
Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers $27,590
Glaziers $36,640
Coating, painting, and spraying machine setters, operators, and tenders $32,520
Electrical and electronics repairers, commercial and industrial equipment $47,480
Electrical and electronic equipment assemblers $27,500
Industrial production managers $97,330

For more detailed information on manufacturing occupations in the solar power industry, follow the Occupational Outlook Handbook link.

Next week's green job series installment: Occupations in Solar Power Plant Construction

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