First, the good news. As solar takes off across the U.S., the industry is enjoying unprecedented jobs growth. In 2016 alone, there were more than 51,000 solar jobs added in the country – a growth rate of 25% – and one out of every 50 new U.S. jobs that year was in solar. That brings the total number of U.S. solar jobs to 260,077, according to the most recent National Solar Jobs Census we publish at The Solar Foundation.
And despite recent shake-ups in the industry and a relative slowdown in the pace of solar deployment, we expect healthy job growth to continue this year. Our census predicts a 10% increase and more than 26,000 new jobs in 2017.
However, there’s another side to this breakneck growth: Many solar employers are struggling to find and hire qualified candidates. That’s the conclusion of new research conducted for the Solar Training Network, a program we lead that facilitates connections between solar companies, trainers and job seekers. We found that 84% of installers reported difficulty finding qualified applicants, and 26% reported it was “very difficult.”
Not surprisingly, this difficulty is largely attributable to a lack of training and experience among applicants. A large majority of installers in our survey (78%) told us it was difficult to find candidates with any training specific to the open position, and 78% also had trouble finding candidates with relevant work experience.
At first glance, having job openings come up faster than employers can find candidates sounds like an enviable problem to have. But it’s a real concern for the industry if the supply of qualified workers can’t keep up with demand. When solar companies can’t efficiently locate and hire qualified workers, the result is a hit to their bottom lines.
Two-thirds of the employers we surveyed reported that difficulty hiring was both costing them money and limiting their ability to grow. For 39% of respondents, delayed hiring and missed business opportunities added up to more than $10,000 per unfilled position. For 14%, the cost was greater than $50,000.
These added soft costs get passed along to consumers. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), labor-related costs account for 11% of the total cost of a solar installation. Less-efficient installers, callbacks due to mistakes, additional recruitment and training, and other costs associated with the difficulty finding qualified applicants are all factors that can increase costs.
As the economy rebounds and the country nears full employment, related industries like construction are reporting high worker shortages and seeing their workforces exceed 2008 levels, bringing new competition to the solar labor market. Job candidates with experience in construction, roofing and related sectors could be excellent hires for the solar industry, but they are likely unaware of these opportunities – and solar companies may not know how to find them.
Tony Ramudo, vice president and co-founder at Urban Solar Group in Boca Raton, Fla., says it’s difficult to hire workers fast enough as his company grows.
“We’re looking for installers all the time,” he says. “We’re just trying to keep up with the growth and also find time to give them training.”
Ramudo says he typically looks for hires in the construction industry, but the right candidate has to be somewhat tech-savvy and “willing to learn something new.” He also believes the industry would benefit from more widespread training programs that teach basic installation skills.
“I think it would be easier for us to hire if people were coming to us saying, ‘I was already trained, I know the basics – let’s get to work,’” he says.
Workforce needs by state
This demand for solar workers is not uniform across the country. In fact, our research found that solar workforce needs vary widely by state. We developed a Geographic Demand Index to identify states where we expect to see the greatest shortage of solar workers in the next one to three years.
At the top of the list is Vermont, where solar jobs are growing 58 times faster than the overall economy and solar-friendly policies will encourage future growth. Another state with high workforce needs is California, which added over 24,000 new solar jobs in 2016. Other states that rank high on our demand index include New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and even Nebraska (where the number of solar jobs doubled last year).
Although more established industries have found efficient ways to meet labor demand, solar companies are still looking for the best strategies to hire all the skilled men and women they need. In this rapidly growing industry, there is plenty of room for creative and innovative improvements to the training and employment pipelines. We hope the index we created will help solar companies, training providers and workforce development boards identify areas with the greatest demand for solar workforce growth when determining where to invest resources.
The need for training
Research shows that firms stand to gain financially from an investment in worker training. Our analysis of several solar companies, which combined account for a majority of the hiring in the solar installation sector, found that higher investments in onboarding training corresponded with a reduction in labor costs.
While more research is needed to see if this correlation holds up, another recent study found that an improperly installed residential system can lead to callbacks that cost between $2,500 and $7,500 apiece. Using those numbers, a 1% decrease in callbacks could save the industry more than $10 million in less than a year.
What kind of training is most useful? The answer may be surprising. When it comes to entry-level workers, many companies we surveyed didn’t place the most importance on traditional, semester-long courses. Instead, they perceived more value in hands-on experience, safety training and soft skills. A candidate with those qualities and some basic electrical or PV system knowledge is ideal. While employers are always pleased to hear from candidates with North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) training, 49% of the employers we surveyed did not consider this certification important for hiring entry-level candidates. Like Tony Ramudo, many employers look for a candidate with a strong work ethic who knows the basics and is willing to learn.
Semester-long training courses certainly remain important for the industry. However, they are considered most valuable not for entry-level hires, but for employees looking to gain additional experience that leads to a promotion. It’s also important to remember that NABCEP certification may be highly valued in mature and competitive markets like California, but not so much in nascent ones like West Virginia.
Meanwhile, solar employers point to an urgent need for more training on the job. Only 34% of the employers in our research provided a formal on-the-job training program. Two-thirds of employers said it would be highly valuable to have a standardized, industry-wide training program involving system installation and connection, system components, and electricity basics. Solar companies would benefit by working directly to develop this standard curriculum with training providers and industry groups.
Strengthening the workforce
Along with enhanced training, there’s a lot more the industry can do to attract qualified employees. This should include better education and outreach to let candidates know that jobs are available. For generations, it’s been common knowledge that you can look for a job as a construction worker, a coal miner or a plumber. It’s far less well-known that solar is one of the hottest areas of job growth in the nation or that solar jobs pay above the national average, with excellent opportunities for advancement.
Solar companies should work together to reach out to more potential employees. Despite the vast exhibition spaces at industry conferences, our survey found that most solar trainers do not participate in job fairs or industry events. Firms should seek out underutilized resources like workforce development boards and local economic development organizations. The industry should be visiting more high schools, universities and community colleges to get the word out about career opportunities.
Stronger partnerships between employers and training providers would help match qualified candidates with solar job openings. Improved online and offline career forums for job seekers are also needed. Our survey found that word of mouth was the most common method for seeking candidates (used by 77% of respondents), and the second most common was Internet job postings (63%). However, roughly half of respondents agreed that existing job boards and placement services are insufficient and difficult to use in a targeted way.
To help meet these needs, we recently launched a free online career platform through the Solar Training Network, a program funded by the DOE’s SunShot Initiative. The platform offers career resources to job candidates and helps them build connections with employers and training providers. Solar companies and training organizations can explore this resource and create a profile at SolarTrainingUSA.org.
The solar industry should also do more to foster a diverse workforce that is representative of the population. This helps the industry find the most qualified workers and, as research shows, yields economic benefits to firms. Right now, the industry is nowhere near achieving this goal; for example, our census found that only 28% of solar workers are women, though that number has risen in recent years. That’s why we’re working with the Solar Energy Industries Association’s Women’s Empowerment Committee to pursue new research on women, minorities, and veterans in the solar workforce and set targets for improvement.
When we take a step back, the solar industry is in a very good place. Costs are down, and the investment climate is favorable for continued expansion and a steady increase in jobs. In the coming years, solar companies, training providers, and policymakers should work together and find smart ways to manage this job growth and build a stronger workforce. If we can do this, we can be sure that job seekers in search of a rewarding career will know there is a bright future for them in solar.
Andrea Luecke is president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing solar energy use.