Blogs, Solar

Prevent a Major Solar Workforce Deficit: Think Like a New Product Manager

The solar industry is expanding rapidly, but support for workforce development has not kept pace with market growth. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, in the next few years the U.S. solar industry will grow from an $8 billion to $15 billion per year business, which will require robust workforce development to meet market demand for talented industry professionals. Rapid growth of the solar industry is great news, and it will create thousands more jobs. But we must invest in more (and the right) training programs to meet this demand.

According to The Solar Foundation’s 2011 National Solar Jobs Census, more than 50 percent of companies report difficulty hiring the right people for job openings, but less than 5 percent view this as a barrier to growth. The research of the Silicon Valley-based Solar Workforce Innovations Collaborative (SWIC), a working consortium of member companies from across the solar industry and local governments and utilities, echoes this view. Based on our regional employer surveys, over one-third of companies indicated that finding talent with the right experience was a challenge.

Put another way, solar is essentially comprised of 3 “P’s” — products, processes and people.

The solar industry has spent time and money focusing on creating quality products and streamlining processes to make solar available to greater numbers of consumers and businesses. These infusions over the past five years have resulted in major reductions in costs and time to market.

Where I think we have fallen short as an industry is the third P – people. It’s time that we had similar investments in workforce development to train hundreds of thousands of people to install the projected millions of solar energy systems for American homes and businesses over the next few years.

The level of solar workforce development needs to grow exponentially to ensure that enough people are trained and available to meet the growing demand for skilled workers and specialized talent along the supply chain. However, the training must be tailored to specific local and regional markets at any given time, or otherwise it will likely fail.

Previously, workforce-training programs were either outdated or deployed without a strong market validation of whether the training provided was what companies actually needed. Hence, these training programs flooded the market—solar companies could not absorb all of these workers—and newly trained people were frustrated with the few number of available jobs.

Historically, training institutions exceeded labor needs for installation roles, while other job functions were ignored. That, coupled with the growing convergence of solar PV and energy efficiency, created a recipe for unmet needs. As a result, we have produced a pool of talent that can’t find jobs because the demand is just not there for their specific skill sets, and companies are, meanwhile, spending unnecessary time and money on sourcing and placing job candidates. It’s a mismatch that unfortunately gets repeated multiple times.

At a time of record unemployment, it makes sense to create workforce training programs to meet the growing job demand. We also need to train more workers because it allows us to stay competitive globally. But all of this needs to be done in the right way, with the right partners and with an industry-led, systems approach.

The dearth of skilled solar industry workers is one of the reasons SWIC — and the Workforce Institute, another California-based workforce development program — were created.

SWIC is a pilot training and placement program, funded by the California Secretary of Labor that prepares qualified candidates for solar industry and other clean energy careers. In addition to training, SWIC also connects candidates with hiring companies through an industry-led, systems-driven model. The program, which trains students at no cost to hiring companies, saves those companies $12,000-$18,000 per hired worker they would have previously spent to source and place the right talent. To date, it has placed more than half of the students trained in high-level industry jobs, despite an economy that is still recovering from the worst downturn since 1933.

The SWIC and Workforce Institute programs represent a good start. However, more investments are needed to increase the number of training programs and availability of skilled workers needed in such a rapidly-scaling industry. But we need to be smart about how we scale — that means adapting programs to serve the workforce needs of differing solar markets and seeking meaningful input from industry stakeholders all along the way. 

Industry trade associations, like SolarTech/SWIC, can serve that role by coordinating a team that includes community colleges and workforce investment boards and connecting them with employers to conduct real-time labor market research. This coordination and research helps define specialized workforce training and assist in placement that meets the tailored needs of the local industry. Think of the trade association as a product manager who coordinates a team to do the appropriate R&D and testing in targeted markets, in this case in the Bay area, before launching the product in other regions.

Just as investments in products and processes have helped remove fundamental market barriers to solar and other clean energy sectors, it’s time we made similar investments in the training and placement programs that will help the industry grow and prosper even more in the years to come.

Image: Empty classroom via Shutterstock