The Solar Foundation released its National Jobs Census last week at Solar Power International (SPI) in Dallas, Texas. The good news is that the solar power industry added almost ten times more jobs over the past year than the overall U.S. economy, which added jobs at a rate of a mere 0.7%. The bad news is that the percentage of job growth since last year is a much-smaller-than-predicted 6.8%.
Andrea Luecke, executive director of The Solar Foundation, the organization that authored the report, shed some light on the data on Tuesday during a sit-down video interview at the Event Broadcast booth.
Overall, Luecke said she is happy with the results, despite the fact that they are so much lower than expected. “We really didn’t expect to reach 26% but that’s how the employers responded,” she said. The Jobs Census is the result of employers reporting how many jobs they expect to add over the course of the year. The survey is taken during the June through August timeframe.
Luecke said employers were overly optimistic for a lot of reasons: explosive demand for solar, increased public acceptance for solar and expectations that the economy would bounce back much quicker than it has. “It was a sign of the times,” she said.
Luecke also mentioned the mid-term elections last year as something that really changed the course for green jobs and clean energy investment.
Employers were asked in the survey about what hindered them from adding the number of jobs that they had predicted and more than 30% of solar employers cited general economic conditions. Luecke said for one, the residential pace of installations stalled. Last year a lot of employers were buoyed by the booming demand for residential solar systems but much of that fell away when the housing market ground to a halt. And once one segment of the market dropped out, the ripple effect felt throughout the value chain, said Luecke, meant that employers were no longer as confident about investing in growth.
“You know were are undergoing the worst recession since the great depression,” she said, “we have 14 million Americans out of work and millions upon millions more either discouraged or underemployed and people are afraid.”
But that’s not all. According to the report, industry execs also put the lack of state incentives, the lack of consumer awareness and the lack of consumer access to loans or credit as other obstacles that impacted their ability to add jobs within their companies.
Solar Requires Specific Training
Another important aspect of solar jobs – one that resonates throughout the report – is the fact that employers are seeking highly qualified employees and have a difficult time finding them. Solar installation companies – both solar hot water and solar PV – predict that they will need to hire 40-50% more installers and technicians over the course of the next year. With so many unemployed right now, it would seem like filling those spots would be relatively simple, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
“This is really one of the biggest challenges that employers face,” said Luecke. The solar industry is still a fast-paced quick moving industry that is experiencing growth, she said. Employers “don’t feel that they have the time or want to incur the liability of training workers,” she said. They want the people they hire to be able to hit the ground running, said Luecke.
“It is the classic catch-22,” said Luecke. Employers cite on-the-job training as one of the most valuable assets that a potential employee can bring to the hiring process and yet, employers aren’t willing to invest the time in giving them that very training. And because the pool of potential employees is so incredibly large, employers have the luxury of being extremely picky.
Can you break into the solar industry? Yes, you can but you’ll need to go out and get specific training, some of which can take up to five years. “For installers, on the job apprentice programs are really important,” she said. “Electrician, plumber, journeyman electrician, master electrician programs…. that’s really the best bet for getting an installer job.”
Experienced-based learning is really the most desirable pathway to getting a job in the solar industry, she added. At minimum, the report points out that certifications offered by non-profit and for-profit accredited training organizations and even community college courses can help.
Indeed, a credentialed workforce is as beneficial to the industry as it is to the company and individual. The Jobs Census reports that there are clear advantages to holding certifications like NABCEP or UL such as distinguishing workers and their companies and building professionalism in the workplace. In other words, the industry at large is better off if all of its workers have the proper training and can prove it.
This is good news if you are a plumber or an electrician or an engineer. Katherine Hart, who runs the Career Center at SPI, however, says that she doesn’t see a lot of those folks looking for jobs. “Most of the people who come by the career center are tradespeople such as construction workers looking to break into solar. I also see a lot of former salespeople who need jobs,” she said.
It’s been well documented that there is a lack of engineers in the U.S. As the current crop of engineers and utility executives retire, the country is likely to experience some problems. Hart explains that electricians are looking for solar jobs but aren’t sure how to get them, “I feel there is a huge disconnect between electricians and engineers to understand how to get involved in the solar industry.”
One of the highlights of the 2010 report was what it showed us about solar manufacturing. Last year, The Jobs Census report showed that almost 25,000 people worked in solar manufacturing and that number was expected to go up by 36 percent by August 2011. That didn’t happen.
Instead The Solar Foundation has reported that as of August 2011, approximately 24,000 workers are employed by the solar power industry. Luecke explained that while layoffs did play a role in the lower number, the survey firm also made improvements to the methodology it used to study the industry. According to the report, “Solar manufacturers employ 24,064 solar workers and expect strong growth over the coming year. Though this number is lower than the reported figure in 2010, the reduction is not due to layoffs or plant closures but to fine-tuning of how firms are classified. In fact, manufacturers increased their workforce by 24.9% since August 2010.”
Luecke explained that the refinements to the methodology were in how it classified companies. Last year more companies were included in the manufacturing sector than really should have been, she said. “There is a lot of overlap in the industry,” she said. “A lot of manufacturing companies work in installation, some work in sales and distribution, some do R&D, there’s just so much overlap that companies that should have been categorized [in 2010] as sales and distribution were actually categorized as manufacturing,” she said.
Despite all of that, now-correctly categorized manufactures do indeed expect to add jobs in 2012. The report shows that manufacturing companies expect to add 3,473 workers over the next 12 months. Nationwide, manufacturing is predicted to decline by 2.6 percent over the same timeframe.
How To Use This Data
Luecke feels that the report is really an assignment for employers in the industry. “They should really use this information that educate policymakers and other powers that be about the value of the solar industry in helping our economy recover,” she said.
The Jobs Report is one more piece of a comprehensive set of data that we already have about the solar industry, Luecke points out. “We have lot of great data on solar exports, solar revenues, solar capacities and solar cost reduction but jobs was really the missing piece.”
She goes on further to explain that this being the second year for the report, there are now solid figures that point to solid growth.
The report is incredibly comprehensive in nature, offering readers specifics about which U.S. states are expected to be adding jobs in the next year. It also offers recommendations for policymakers, workforce training providers and employers and the solar community. With a U.S. unemployment rate of more than 9%, the Solar Foundations’ jobs report is much needed summary of how at least the solar industry can start putting some people back to work.
To watch an interview with Andrea Luecke of The Solar Foundation, play the video below.