Solar Workforce Development 2.0: Page 3 of 4

Looking back at his career in solar so far, Fawcett notes that he found the most effective training program not at the technology-driven solar companies, but at Admirals Bank—a 28-year-old institution that provides a variety of core banking services, including checking and savings accounts. “Training and development is maybe not the biggest priority for very small or rapidly growing or lightly funded startups,” he says. At Admirals Bank, Fawcett participated in a yearlong series of management training sessions consisting of monthly meetings and homework assignments related to each month’s topic.

The concept might seem simple, but Fawcett says implementation takes commitment from leadership, not merely a change in perspective. Creating a training program requires pulling back from current business models, analyzing the competitive landscape and executing new strategies to win. “There’s a cost to it,” he says, adding that solar companies have reached a point where some, including Sungevity and CPF, have started making the investment. “It’s something we are thinking about at Mosaic, to be a leader in the industry with a diverse talent pool and, given our size, provide training and advancement for our employees,” Fawcett says.

Companies without the resources to develop in-house training programs can take advantage of third-party services. HeatSpring, for example, is an online platform that partners with industry experts, including SolarPro, to offer a selection of solar-specific e-learning content. These digital assets are similar to those found at Coursera, Udacity and Several HeatSpring courses are available at no charge, while others require an enrollment fee. The next step is for top solar employers to join tech leaders—not just Google and Facebook, but also AT&T and General Electric—in driving the ongoing revolution in corporate training.

The need for better training is evident. On the jobs and recruiting website, in September 2015, an anonymous reviewer who has been a Vivint Solar employee for more than 3 years gave the company a five-star review, calling it a “great place [with] room to grow,” but noted that “there are no up-trainings for those who have been here for a while.” A SolarCity employee in senior management struck a similar note in another recent Glassdoor review, describing the company as a  “great place to work” but giving this advice to management: “More training for sales reps—quick growth and hiring may be hurting our brand.” A SunEdison consultant recommended the company and highly rated its chief executive officer. Pros included the company’s “great sales tools,” and cons indicated that training “was minimal. Learn-as-you-go type environment.”

Foster diversity. Diversity is a huge topic in the solar industry right now, and it has a big impact on employee retention. Erica Mackie, GRID Alternatives’ chief executive officer and co-founder, and Ahmad Chatila, SunEdison’s chief executive officer, have both made a strong case for the business value of gender, racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace (see Resources). Their organizations have taken steps to address the fostering of diverse talent, launching the Women in Solar Initiative and the Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy program, supporting mentorships and professional networking organizations such as Women in Cleantech and Sustainability, and hosting events to stimulate the exchange of ideas and increase visibility for people with diverse perspectives.

While the solar industry is making some progress in terms of inclusivity, it still has a long way to go. According to the latest National Solar Jobs Census, the demographic breakdown of the workforce is as follows: 22% women, 16% Latino and Hispanic, 7% Asian and Pacific Islander, and 6% African American.

Elena Lucas, chief executive officer of UtilityAPI, who also serves on the board at Women in Cleantech and Sustainability, says she focused on gender diversity as the company grew from 2 to 11 people during the past year. Four members of the team are women—but she readily admits the need to refocus on racial and ethnic diversity in the next round of hiring. Another challenge is identifying people from diverse backgrounds to serve as high-level advocates. As Lucas started assembling an executive advisory board, she could think of only two women in leadership roles who had built companies in solar or cleantech and who were not potential UtilityAPI customers and therefore ineligible to serve on the board.

Retain skilled workers. Employee retention is a huge topic among Fortune 500 companies right now. Consider the findings of Deloitte University’s “Global Human Capital Trends 2015” report (see Resources), which is based on a labor market survey of 3,200 respondents. The survey asked business leaders to rate the importance of workforce challenges and their readiness to meet those challenges, and then it prioritized the results, starting with the most important topics requiring the greatest attention. Employee retention and engagement topped the list.

The research and consulting firm Great Place to Work (see Resources) publishes industry data showing that companies with a strong workplace culture experience less voluntary turnover, reducing recruitment and training costs and improving financial performance. Employers understand the return on investment of workforce development policies. As the Deloitte human capital report shows, many of them are doing something about it. Pfizer, AOL, Facebook and others are using people analytics to identify workplace factors affecting high-performer retention. BP is using analytics to evaluate its training programs. The value of company-specific training goes beyond skills development for employees and managers. It contributes to employee engagement and performance.

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