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More skilled workers needed

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A shortage of skilled workers combined with increased demand for solar power generation panels has led to an increasing number of problems, such as roof damage, when installing the panels.

Solar panels for ordinary houses grew in popularity in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture.

According to the Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association, which comprises 148 companies and organizations, including major solar panel manufacturers and power companies, there were 235,817 applications for subsidies in fiscal 2011, up by about 30 percent from the previous year.

In fact, the number of applications from April to September grew at the fastest pace ever at 127,789.

However, programs to foster workers with the skills needed to set up solar panels have been unable to keep up with demand.

In May, a man in his 30s in southern Kyushu complained to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan that his house had been damaged.

"When a solar panel was installed, they [the workers] created a hole in one of the main wooden rafters," he said.

The company admitted the mistake and told the man it would repair the damage. But the man said he feared his house's ability to withstand earthquakes may have been compromised.

According to the center, the number of consultations about problems related to installing solar power panels was 20 or less a year until fiscal 2009.

The number rose to 32 in fiscal 2010 and to 45 in fiscal 2011 in the wake of the crisis at Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. This fiscal year, the number reached 31 for the eight-month period ending in November.

More troubling, a man in his 30s in the Kinki region complained a panel that had been installed only a year ago had been blown away by strong winds. He was unable to contact the company that had done the work.

Any certified electrician would be capable, in theory, of installing a standard 400-kilogram household solar panel. However, workers should also have an understanding of roof structures.

Therefore, in September 2009, about 150 home construction firms established their own vocational school in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, called Solar Integration Technical Center to foster skilled workers in the field.

The school offers a combination of 45 hours of DVD lectures and at least 20 days of training.

During their training, students are instructed by skilled teachers on how to install solar panels using mock houses and roofs at a warehouse.

About 250 students have completed courses at the school.

Mikio Suetake, the school's principal, said: "After the nuclear accident, inquiries about the program increased about five-fold. We want to foster workers who are capable of supervising an entire job."

In July this year, the school opened another campus in Higashi-Matsushima, Miyagi Prefecture, which was devastated by the tsunami triggered by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

It aims to assist installations of solar panels in disaster-hit areas and also secure employment for survivors.

The Japan Photovoltaic Energy Association also established a system in November to give private-sector certification as "PV work engineers" and will begin certifying workers within this fiscal year.

To be certified, applicants must receive at least three days of training. Certification exams will be held once or twice a year at about eight locations nationwide.

"We want a system that wins the trust of consumers," an official of the association said.

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