It was while trotting the globe as a technical rep for Xerox that Mohamed Sheikh really began to think about the Sun’s future. Little did he know, he may have been gazing into his son’s future, as well.
Bouncing from L.A. to Beijing, to San Francisco and even parts of Africa to attend trade shows, he frequently found himself face-to-face with the latest technological advances. But when he saw what was being done with photovoltaic cell technology, even 25 years ago, he knew solar would be the real game-changer.
“I thought it was the future,” says Sheikh, who would finally convince his UV-bright son Sameer to attend a photovoltaic solar class with him at Irvine Valley College. “Efficiency has gone up – [what used to] cost 16 dollars per watt is now down to 55 cents per watt.
“Energy is number one right now.”
For Sameer, what started as a way to connect with his father around a topic he had spent countless hours researching in retirement, quickly became something more.
“[At first], I had some interest, but my dad was really interested,” says the self-described “serial student,” currently working on his sixth associate degree between IVC and Saddleback College. “The idea was to take what I’ve learned to implement some kind of good.”
Though a successful management consultant by trade, Sameer was seeking a path that would allow him to use his knowledge to improve his community, and maybe even his world. With his father’s advice echoing, he began to see the light on solar.
“I tell him: with solar, you’re changing the world,” says the elder Sheikh.
And while changing the world with solar energy wasn’t part of Sameer’s initial plan, it’s now something he’s seriously considering.
“I’d love to go in that direction – maybe in some capacity with policy,” admits Sameer. “That’s where I am now.”
To say the future of solar energy is bright would amount to more than just a lazy pun. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for Solar Photovoltaic Installers is expanding at a staggering rate of 63 percent annually -- about 10 times the national average for all professions. California, in particular, has established itself as a worldwide renewable energy leader, with a stated goal to transition to 100-percent clean energy within the next 25 years.
“20 million people are out of jobs,” says Mohamed Sheikh in reference to the current employment crisis. “But people need energy.”
With career education providing the clearest path to solar energy careers, California’s community colleges have stepped up to meet rising demand. Through Irvine Valley College’s Electrical Technology department, students now have access to a workforce-ready Energy Solar Photovoltaic Systems Technician certificate, leading to living-wage employment in Orange County. The best part, according to the Sheikh father-son duo? The access.
“[IVC is] amazing in that you have all these professors who don’t just teach at the theoretical level, but they’ve been there,” says Sameer Sheikh, who credits instructors Massimo Mitolo and Matthew Wolken, in particular, for burnishing his interest and understanding regarding solar energy. “They’re at the top of their field, and you have access to them that you wouldn’t have at a normal institution.”
“I think we have one of the best instructors [in Mitolo],” agrees Mohamed. “He takes the time, makes sure it’s understood. He’s so very knowledgeable, but [still] has so much time for students.”
The respect is mutual. For Mitolo, a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London, the sight of a hyper-focused father and son, listening and engaging from the front row of his class, is nothing short of a delight.
“Mohamed and Sameer Sheikh are exemplary students, who integrate their experience with interest for PV solar systems and hard work,” says Mitolo. “Having a multigenerational ‘student force’ is a distinct advantage for my classroom [as] the wide range of ideas and knowledge from a broad group of students can serve all the students well.”
In many ways, public perception around solar energy has followed a similar arc to community college itself. Both have overcome outdated (and often inaccurate) stigma to emerge as a more efficient, less expensive alternative.
His experience at Irvine Valley College has made Sameer a believer, not just in the future of solar energy, but in the power of career education. He recalls beginning his college career as a student at UCSD, and while recognizing the quality of the instruction, having difficulty finding real connection with the curriculum. After just one semester, he would retreat to Orange County, unaware that his perception of a two-year college education was about to melt away.
“UCSD was awesome, just not awesome for me,” he recalls. “Here, you can rub elbows with these [professors] and have them take an active interest in you. That’s why I keep coming back.”
It doesn’t hurt to have the support of a father with his own background in – and passion for -- emerging technology. And while conventional wisdom might deem it awkward to have a parent in one’s class, Sameer Sheikh says he’s been pleasantly surprised.
“I have to say, it’s pretty cool. It’s an opportunity to spend some quality time – a wonderful bonding activity.”
For the elder Sheikh, who still spends hours “poring over YouTube” for solar energy tidbits, it has been a gratifying experience to see his son take a mutual interest in the topic.
“This is the future,” he repeats. “He’s on the right path.”
To learn more about the Energy Solar Photovoltaic Systems Technician certificate, or other future-driven programs in the IVC Electrical Technology program, visit the department website at atep.ivc.edu