On the job: What it takes to earn $100k as a solar panel installer in New Jersey – CNBC

At 25 years old, Ricky Gass has nearly worked more jobs than he can count: he worked in the warehouse of a Restoration Hardware, served coffee at a Dunkin Donuts and was a cashier at a Family Dollar. 

“I’ve worked at least 12 jobs. Some I worked for a day, some I worked for a month, some I worked for a year. It’s just that you realize you’re not valuable. And that day, that’s the day that you leave,” he says. “You realize nobody cares about you. If you call in and say something’s going on with your child or something’s going on with you, they don’t care. But I know what I’m capable of, and every time I felt that on a job, I left.” 

He remembers getting this feeling while earning $7.25 an hour stocking shelves at Toys R Us.

And again when he was working at Family Dollar in 2017, the year his first daughter, Kamilla, was born.

“As soon as I had Kamilla, the next day I had to go to work. I couldn’t get a day off because my paycheck wouldn’t be that good. And even though I just had my daughter, I couldn’t stay in and hold her because I had to go back to work,” he says. “At that moment, I knew that I didn’t want to work in retail anymore because it’s the bare minimum as far as benefits and things of that nature.”

Today, Gass lives in Linden, New Jersey and earns roughly $100,000 per year as a solar panel installer — a job he has no plans of leaving. 

Getting the job

The middle of five children, Gass says his family’s apartment in Newark, New Jersey was cramped. His family later moved to Linden, where he and his siblings attended Linden High School. 

“I was a good student. I’ve always liked to learn. But I was a little bit of a class clown at times, I can admit,” he says. “I graduated in 2014, and I knew I wanted to be different. I knew I wanted to have a good job but I just didn’t know how to get there. I was really confused after high school because I didn’t have a real plan.”

After high school, Gass tried college and dealt with mental health challenges that ultimately culminated in a conflict with law enforcement and spending time in an outpatient health facility. In 2017, Gass was struggling to find consistent work he connected with, so he enrolled in Job Corps, a trade school in Edison, New Jersey.

“I was running from my past. I was running away from complacency, laziness,” he says. “I was running from a lot of things, so I just put all my energy and effort into school.”

During this time, Gass mentored other trade school students and worked as a janitor and played drums for his church to make ends meet. A teacher of his, suggested he look into GAF Roofing Academy, a free training program in Parsippany, New Jersey.

He began the tuition-free program in February 2020 and in May 2020, began working full time as a solar panel installer for Solar Landscaping. 

The GAF Roofing Academy provided him with tools of his own, helped him earn his necessary certificates and connected him with job opportunities. 

A day on the job

Solar panel installers place, secure and connect racks of solar panels on roofs that capture the sun’s energy. This energy can be stored and used to power buildings and homes. For any project that handles more than one megawatt of electricity, approximately equivalent to the energy produced by 10 car engines, installers earn $65 per hour. For smaller projects, installers are paid closer to $22 per hour.

“There are basically three steps,” says Gass. “To install, you have to put these little feet on the bottom of [the panels] so they don’t scratch the roof. And then you have to actually drill the screws into where you connect all the pieces together… Negative and positive [panels] plug into optimizers. So [last] you just plug together positive with negative and negative with positive.”

Gass works Monday through Friday and “never” works weekends. But he does start his days quite early. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m. and drives 90 minutes to his headquarters. A typical day starts between 6 and 6:30 a.m. with a morning meeting where the team learns what projects they will be working on. 

“If we’re doing solar panels, then we’re most likely all working together,” explains Gass. “But if we are working on racking systems or wire management, that’s more of a solo task.”

Work often ends at around 2:30 p.m. which means Gass can spend more time with his family, but he says the work can be strenuous.

“One of my first jobs, we did 11,000 panels on one roof,” he remembers. “Physically, you’ve got to be ready…. Often, you’re lifting bricks, lifting panels, lifting different types of wiring, different equipment. You do not necessarily have to be the strongest person, but you definitely have to be prepared.”

But ultimately, “your technique is more important than the actual physical part of the job,” says Gass. “If you have your technique down and you have your skills that you were taught and how we train, the physical part is not the hardest part. It’s definitely the technique.”

His worst day on the job involved minus-10-degree winter weather and 30-mile-an-hour winds. 

“My hands were numb, I couldn’t move my hands. My feet were numb, I couldn’t even move my toes,” says Gass. “We tried hand warmers, it didn’t work, nothing worked. Three jackets didn’t work. But we got through the day.”

A paycheck that “changed everything”

Gass says his health-care benefits and sizable salary make the early mornings and difficult work worth it. 

“That first paycheck? It changed everything. It changed like my goals. Like at that exact moment, it changed my expectations for myself,” he says. “I was able to buy my first apartment. I was able to get a new car in ’21.”

Gass says he finds purpose in helping people use sustainable energy and aspires to work his way up to the level of foreman, and eventually, run his own solar panel business. “When I was a child, I always wanted to find myself in a career where I was actually helping people,” he says. “That’s a very important reason why I’m in this field.”

Gass says his best day on the job was when his second daughter, Raina, was born on Feb. 3, 2021. Unlike at previous jobs, his new colleagues were unabashedly supportive. And importantly, he was able to leave work.  

“They were so happy for me because I’ll be the first one that’s happy for everyone else. They were really supportive,” gushes Gass. “To see them there for me in a personal situation, it just makes me more effective working with them on the roof.”

“It just makes me work ten times harder.”

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