Help wanted? Solar employers have trouble finding qualified workers, study says

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As most people know (because, frankly, it was everywhere in the news last month), the solar industry produced one out of every 50 new jobs created in 2016. It now employs more people than the coal industry and is closing in on the rest of the fossil-fuel pantheon.

Despite that enormous success, however, a new report suggests the industry could be creating even more jobs if companies could find enough qualified applicants.

The Solar Foundation (TSF), which puts out the annual National Solar Jobs Survey and examines the solar job situation in depth, released its Solar Training and Hiring Insights 2017 report this week. In addition to reporting that two-thirds of solar installers can’t find qualified applicants, it also says more post-hire training would reduce labor costs and save the industry more than $10 million annually.

And the TSF’s interest in the hiring situation isn’t merely a passing fancy because it administers The Solar Training Network, a program presently funded by the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. As pv magazine has reported, TSF launched SolarTrainingUSA.org earlier this month to give  solar employers, training providers and job seekers a single location to come to connect.

The new report says 65% of solar employers the costs associated with finding qualified workers is increasing the amount they have to charge for installations, and 68% said their companies are struggling to grow as a result. According to the data, the costs of recruiting and delayed hiring costs employers more than $10,000 per open position.

“With more than 51,000 new solar jobs in the United States in 2016 alone, employers are facing the challenge of hiring qualified candidates to fill open positions,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of TSF. “Our research finds that making strategic investments in training can help the industry save millions of dollars and ultimately pass the reduced costs on to consumers.”

Perhaps the most fascinating statistic from the report is that if companies invest in significant post-hire training, they can lower overall installation costs, which makes solar more attractive to potential customers.

The report also provides employers with the resources to see if their state is like to experience a shortage in qualified workers, which will allow them to plan effective and sufficient training programs.

Other key findings in the report include:

  • Employers are not seeing enough applicants, with 50% of all firms nationally reporting deficient numbers of applicants.
  • Employers are having the most difficult time finding candidates with adequate soft skills, as well as some form of hands-on electrical, roofing, or construction experience.
  • When qualified applicants do join the solar industry as entry-level solar installers, there are staggering opportunities for rapid advancement and pay raises, largely because of the insufficient applicant pool. In an in-depth case study examining several major solar installers, entry-level installers were typically promoted at least once within 6 to 12 months, and saw an average increase in pay of 45 percent after promotion.

TSF aggregated and analyzed data from several research efforts, including an extensive survey of more than 400 solar installers; in-depth case studies of 10 solar installation firms; interviews with dozens of solar employers, trainers, and workforce development boards; and The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census series.