Vintage hiring and training solutions for a better solar workforce

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By Chris Walker, The Solar Foundation

The number of solar jobs has nearly tripled in the past seven years, and it’s now well-known that the solar industry is a jobs engine. Even in 2017, the first year that our National Solar Jobs Census saw an overall decline in job growth, solar employment went up in 29 states and the District of Columbia. This regional growth tracked industry expansion in many emerging markets in the Midwest and Southeast.

Year after year, however, we’ve found the rise in solar jobs goes hand in hand with a shortage of skilled employees. In our most recent Solar Jobs Census, 85 percent of employees reported difficulty hiring qualified workers, including 89 percent of installation companies. The most common reason for this difficulty, cited by over 50 percent of companies, was the lack of relevant experience or technical knowledge. The two other top reasons were insufficient education or certifications, and the high volume of workers needed.

Especially in this time of record-low unemployment, effective recruitment and training is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, our research shows that in many regional markets, solar training programs are not well-aligned with industry needs, due in part to low industry engagement with training providers. While there are many excellent training opportunities, they don’t always give job seekers the most relevant skills that employers need today. And in some regions with new or contracting job markets, training programs may turn out too many graduates with not enough jobs available for them.

Meanwhile, we’ve found that solar companies often do not take advantage of the abundant public resources available for hiring and recruitment, including local workforce development boards and American Job Centers. And unlike other, more established industries, the solar industry has not developed a widespread model for internships, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training, though a majority of employers think that this kind of training experience is important when hiring entry-level solar installers.

 

A Workforce Development Toolkit

At The Solar Foundation, we lead the Solar Training Network, a federally-funded program specifically designed to bridge the gap between supply and demand in the solar workforce. This week, we released Strategies for Workforce Development: A Toolkit for the Solar Industry: a detailed, step-by-step guide to help meet the demand for qualified employees and build a skilled and diverse solar workforce.

As we developed this toolkit, we found there are many effective ways for the industry to hire and train skilled workers. In short, there’s a lot more that solar companies can do than simply post open positions on job boards. They can also engage with the community, strengthen training and hiring practices, and raise public awareness of the solar industry and its many career opportunities. A number of these strategies are used in other industries, so we can even refer to them as “vintage” solutions — but so far they are not widely used within the solar industry. Adopting these time-tested best practices can improve employee hiring and retention, boost employee qualifications, and allow solar businesses to grow and succeed.

One of the primary ways to achieve these goals is by partnering with the local workforce development system. Workforce development boards and American Job Centers are public resources available in virtually all communities to assist with the hiring and recruitment process. Effectively, they can serve as an extension of a company’s human resources staff, helping write and post job descriptions and reach out to local job seekers, including veterans and diverse communities. Workforce boards have funding available to connect job seekers to training opportunities, and can help solar companies make connections to schools and community colleges.

Engagement with the workforce development system can also improve employee diversity, a stated priority for the solar industry today, though relatively few companies have a strategy for meeting diversity goals. The public workforce system has the resources to connect companies with a wider range of talent pools, increasing the hiring of women, people of color, low-income communities, and veterans. As we detailed in our recent Solar Industry Diversity Study, a more diverse and inclusive industry brings a host of benefits. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it helps expand the size of the applicant pool, improve employee well-being, and increase a company’s profitability.

 

Learning On-the-Job

One of the most effective ways to attract qualified employees is to develop work-based learning programs, which allow a business to invest in the skills of current and future workers. Our recent Solar Training Hiring and Insights report has shown that solar companies greatly value on-the-job training, but it is not widely available; only 34 percent of the solar companies we surveyed provided a formal on-the-job training program.

This toolkit provides a detailed action plan for how solar companies can pursue these work-based learning opportunities, while engaging with their communities and the workforce development system to strengthen the workforce. Work-based learning has many advantages for the industry: It can improve the talent pipeline in the near-term, reduce the cost of hiring, and streamline the training process. It helps ensure that employees have up-to-date skill sets tailored to the employer’s needs and provides a low-risk vetting opportunity for new hires.

Work-based learning can also help companies retain employees by investing in their professional development and presenting the steps in a career pathway from the outset. And even more important: By increasing opportunities for internships, apprenticeships, and employee training, solar companies raise the industry’s profile by advertising the opportunities for a solar career.

In developing this toolkit, we worked with partner organizations and a wide range of employers and trainers through interviews, conversations, summits, and research to develop best practices for workforce development. We hope this toolkit can be the start of a conversation on improved strategies to build an even stronger solar workforce that continues to create high-quality jobs for all backgrounds, interests, and education levels throughout America.

 

Chris Walker is Senior Program Manager for the Solar Training Network at The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the use of solar and solar-compatible technologies worldwide.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.