Solar Workforce Development 2.0

To come of age, the solar industry needs new workforce development strategies.

Raise your hand if this story sounds familiar: The year was 2008. Presidential candidate Barack Obama was invoking a message of hope and change for a wounded country emerging from the shadow of 9/11 and a prolonged recession. Driven by a sense of purpose, and with nothing much to lose, Dave Kozin landed a job as an installer at a local solar company that was itself just getting off the ground. “Given the scarcity of projects for us back then, I often had to find other ways to keep myself busy,” Kozin says of the early days at Seattle-based A&R Solar. “We didn’t pay ourselves very much or very often, so I had a part-time side job selling mattresses out of a storage unit to pay my bills.”

At this point, there ought to be hundreds, if not thousands, of people nodding in recognition. Many solar professionals share such humble beginnings in their careers. Even if you were not moonlighting in bedroom furniture sales while getting a foot in the door, anyone who has been around solar long enough has probably made sacrifices and worn a few different hats along the way. What is remarkable about Kozin’s career is not so much the starting point as it is the journey he has made from entry-level installer to chief financial officer—all at the same company, a growing business that now employs nearly 40 people and expects to generate revenues of $12 million in the current fiscal year. You could say Kozin bears witness to the idea that passion, hard work and a little bit of sacrifice lead to success, a popular idea among solar industry recruiters. But there is a problem with this narrative, which masks the current reality of the solar industry. Solar installation companies are facing a new crisis: a severe shortage of qualified job applicants.

Continual growth in the industry requires companies to keep increasing the scale of business. As they do, they must carefully nurture and maintain the workplace flexibility that comes so naturally to young companies with fresh ideas, creating opportunities for people to bootstrap themselves into leadership positions. As solar starts to converge with other cleantech industries, competing for talent and market share in the evolving smart GRID technology space, the industry will have to confront a new workforce development challenge. Companies can no longer rely on creating jobs and letting the biggest stars on staff shine brightest. They will have to deliberately increase the supply of skilled labor, carving out pathways for people to pursue solar not only as an adventurous job for innovative pioneers, but as a long-lasting career.

Sizing Up the Workforce

Since the 1850s, the US government has been collecting data on the type of work people do, revising or replacing occupations and entire classification systems to reflect the way new industries transform the workplace. Where statisticians once tracked the number of daguerreotypists and baking soda makers, they are now keeping tabs on software developers and massage therapists. Photovoltaic installers entered the group of about 800 federal occupational categories in 2010. In the same year, The Solar Foundation, an industry-backed nonprofit, published its first National Solar Jobs Census, a report it has continued to publish annually.

Differences in data collection methods and definitions of occupation titles make it difficult to compare employment estimates from the government and the industry. What is clear is that the figures are wildly divergent. On the one hand, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 5,170 solar installers in its latest estimate from May 2014, placing the group among the smallest occupational categories on record, along with hearing aid specialists. The National Solar Jobs Census 2014 (see Resources), on the other, counted 97,031 workers at solar installation companies. This figure puts solar installers ahead of established sectors in the energy industry, such as coal mining and petroleum refining. When you add in almost 77,000 workers from other sectors of the industry, such as manufacturing and project development, the number allows the Solar Energy Industries Association to claim on social media that the solar industry, with close to 174,000 workers overall, has more employees than Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter combined.

Without delving too deeply into why these employment estimates are so widely divergent, it is safe to say that the federal government is vastly underreporting the number of solar installers in the labor market. For instance, the largest residential solar installer, SolarCity, employed about 9,000 people at the start of 2015, and roughly half of its employees work on the installation side of the business. With approximately 4,500 installers, SolarCity deployed 500 MW of capacity, accounting for 8% of total added capacity in the US in 2014. If all solar installers had been operating at the same level of efficiency, the industry would have needed about 55,600 installers overall in 2014. However, as the largest installer, SolarCity has the means, the motivation and the stated goal of being more efficient than average. The overall number of US installers in that year was therefore probably greater than 55,600.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics evaluates solar installers as an occupational category only, not as a broad industry sector. But solar installation companies also employ people in administration, sales and marketing. Once again extrapolating from the number of people in these roles at SolarCity, you wind up with an employment figure that reflects the National Solar Jobs Census more closely than it does the government estimate.

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