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.

Preventing a Labor Shortage

It is easy to get caught up in the overall job growth of the solar industry and lose sight of warning signs. After all, the solar workforce is outpacing the national average job growth rate. The solar industry’s growth rate accelerated from 13% in 2012 to 20% in 2013 and to 22% in 2014.

For years, a historically weak labor market in the construction trades created a ready-made pipeline from which solar companies could pluck installers, warehouse employees, electricians and others who came in with relevant experience from day one. But as the latest National Solar Jobs Census noted, the solar workforce has largely absorbed all that surplus labor, putting pressure on employers to step up education and training programs. Wage increases might also be in order.

The National Solar Jobs Census survey data reflects a shortage of qualified solar job applicants. While tracking current employment in the industry, the census also looks at metrics that help forecast labor market trends, such as reported difficulty in the hiring process. The results are relatively constant across the five categories of employment that reflect the solar industry: installation; manufacturing; sales and distribution; project development; and a catch-all category that includes research centers, nonprofits and government entities.

All in all, three out of four employers noted some level of difficulty finding employees. Reasons included a lack of appropriate skills, a lack of qualifications and competition from other employers. To mitigate these challenges and build a stronger workforce, the solar industry needs to build better career ladders, improve training opportunities, foster diversity and, ultimately, retain more skilled workers.

Build better career ladders. Everyone in the solar industry—individuals and companies alike—has to answer a few questions. How do employees advance in the company? After reaching the next level, where can they go from there? Answers vary based on an employee’s skill set, but it benefits all parties to increase mobility within the workforce.

Everywhere you turn, there are stories about solar employees rising to positions of leadership. At GRID Alternatives, for example, such stories abound. A nonprofit provider of solar job training primarily for underserved communities, GRID Alternatives brought a lot of its own volunteer trainees on staff as it increased employee headcount from 100 to 250 over the last few years. Erika Symmonds, director of workforce development at GRID Alternatives, notes that her supervisor, currently in senior management, started out in the SolarCorps Fellowship, one of GRID Alternative’s career development programs. “Definitely, this is a part of our culture. If you go to our staff summit, most of the people you talk to are going to say, ‘I started out as a volunteer,’” Symmonds says.

Part of her job is to track volunteers once they enter the workforce. She says a lot of recruiters tell applicants there are opportunities to move up from entry-level installer to crew lead within 6 months. GRID Alternatives is building out its online volunteer portal and back-end databases so that former volunteers can provide feedback about where their career paths take them. One person in the office makes phone calls for hours daily to collect this information. “It’s important that the career piece is there,” Symmonds says. “Even though lower-level jobs in solar pay better than a retail job, I want to see people moving up in their solar careers.”

At the 2015 Solar Power International convention and exhibition in Anaheim, California, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council released an updated version of its Solar Career Map (see Resources), which charts routes for advancement within the solar field. Using 40 occupations, the map shows that with continuing education, experienced installers can move up to become project managers, commercial and utility solar technicians, contractors and instructors, or they can jump directly into work in PV system design and engineering for utility interconnections. The map also illustrates how to progress between industry sectors, parlaying experience in operations into manufacturing opportunities, for example. The door is open for people to customize their career path.

Improve training opportunities. Ted Fawcett did not use a map to chart out his professional journey. His career stops included work at a startup that reduced postal junk mail, a position in the corporate division at Apple and a stint as a boat captain in Hawaii. “I have about as nonlinear a career as a person could have,” he says. In 2009, Fawcett looked at his skill set and interests, and decided to pursue sales positions in the solar industry.

He joined Sungevity with the idea that rapid growth at the company would create opportunities. Soon Fawcett was leading the sales team and building a division to manage sales originated by Sungevity’s installer partners. Success there led Fawcett to join Clean Power Finance (CPF), bringing on top-tier partners and reselling third-party products through the CPF platform. After taking a leave from the industry to take care of his newborn child, Fawcett picked back up with Admirals Bank, helping the organization form a national strategy and a sales team for a solar loan product to rival lease financing in the residential market. In March 2015, he accepted an invitation to join Mosaic, another solar finance provider, as vice president of sales.

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 Lynda.com. 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 glassdoor.com, 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.

Deloitte’s report describes the bottom-line result in this example: “Telus, one of Canada’s fastest-growing telecommunications companies, recently revitalized its learning platforms with improved technology, the assignment of ‘product managers for learning’ within L&D [learning and development], and the adoption of new contextual learning tools. Following these steps, employee retention improved by 30%.”

Because available data about employee retention is inadequate, it is unclear whether younger companies in solar are getting the message that employee retention is good business. It is never too early, however, for business leaders in solar to start addressing employee retention. They can take a cue from electric utility companies, which have recently seen a rise in employee turnover rates. You might think there is little basis for comparison between solar and utilities. The solar workforce is comparatively young and rapidly growing. Utilities have had a long run of stability, but many employees and executives are approaching retirement age.

However, cultural changes in the labor market are affecting both industries in similar ways. In the current environment, there is far greater transparency about what goes on in the workplace. Job applicants routinely do due diligence by logging on to social media and finding out what people are saying about a prospective employer. Applicants also expect employers to accommodate mobility and career development in ways that until recently were not the norm. When the job market is strong, as it has been in recent years, these factors can challenge employers who are struggling with employee engagement. In the utility sector, companies are losing more new employees and high performers than they have in the past, according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers report on the utilities’ changing workforce (see Resources).

One of the best ways to improve employee retention in the long term is to emulate the best practices of successful organizations. The gold standard for workplace culture is Fortune’s ranking of the 100 Best Companies to Work For (see Resources). Published annually for the last 18 years, this list of companies is the benchmark for evaluating the return on investment of workplace development and other human resource endeavors. Technology companies had a strong showing in 2015, led by Google, which topped the rankings for the sixth time. Devon Energy, an independent oil and gas producer from Oklahoma, represented the energy industry and ranked number 38 on the list. The solar industry could bolster its reputation as a leader in corporate social responsibility by working to place at least one top employer on this list in the future.

A Career and a Cause

Employers in the solar industry have a reputation for starting out ahead of the curve and adapting quickly to change. Daniel Sullivan, president and founder of San Diego–based Sullivan Solar Power, approaches his team of 170 employees with the belief that if you take care of your people, they will take care of the company. Sullivan recognizes its employees as a bargaining unit of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, placing it on a short list of the solar companies that have a union shop. “It’s a young industry, but we were paying well from the beginning. We were union the day we started,” he says.

Steve Johnson, the president of LightWave Solar in Nashville, Tennessee, is exploring employee-owned business models so the people who helped the business expand and flourish can build equity, share in company profits and carry the enterprise into the future as Johnson himself gets older. “That will engender the right attitude,” says Johnson, who recently turned 64. This style of company leadership is a big part of what draws people to careers in solar and keeps them engaged when market volatility sends everyone for a jolt, reminding us to keep our belts tightly fastened while riding the solar coaster.

Fawcett, the Mosaic vice president, asks himself from time to time what other industries might resonate with him so much that he would consider a career change. He has made a habit of raising the question with job applicants too, as a way of finding out how people perceive their own place in the bigger picture and weeding out opportunists. One person expressed an interest in working on gadgets. That left an impression on Fawcett, in part because he sees the appeal and also because no other applicant had ever had the gumption to acknowledge thinking of anything other than solar.

Is there another industry where Fawcett can picture himself working with the same degree of engagement? “Right now there isn’t one,” he says. As in 2009, when Fawcett got his first taste of the industry, he remains all in on solar.

CONTACT

Matthew Hirsch / Hirsch Media Services / Berkeley, CA / hirschmedia.biz

RESOURCES

100 Best Companies to Work For / fortune.com/best-companies

Erica Mackie and Ahmad Chatila, “Diversity and Inclusion in Solar: What’s Good for Business Is Good for the Nation,” Greentech Media, August 27, 2015

Erica Mackie and Ahmad Chatila, “Now Hiring: Why We Need a Diverse Solar Workforce, and How We Get There,” Greentech Media, July 7, 2014

“Global Human Capital Trends 2015: Leading in the New World of Work,” Deloitte University Press, March 2015

Great Place to Work Institute / greatplacetowork.com

May 2014 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Bureau of Labor Statistics / www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

National Solar Jobs Census 2014, The Solar Foundation, January 2015 / thesolarfoundation.org/national-solar-jobs-census-2014

“Power and Utilities Changing Workforce: Keeping the Lights On,” PriceWaterhouseCoopers, December 2013

Solar Career Map / irecsolarcareermap.org

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