With workers hard to find, the solar industry tries new recruiting tactics

The industry needs a lot of new skilled workers, but they're hard to find: "We are all facing the same problem."

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January 23, 2024
Solar employees work on a a panel installation

Photo credit: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

The solar industry has tended to recruit using an old playbook: hiring largely from traditional four-year engineering programs, and pulling in experienced talent from the wider energy sector.

But as demand for solar and storage skyrockets, the industry’s workforce gap is widening. Accordingly, certain companies are tossing the playbook aside and looking further afield to meet the hiring needs of the accelerating energy transition. 

According to a panel I moderated at last week's Intersolar North America conference, there’s growing demand for non-traditional, data-based methods of recruiting, training, and retaining. 

  • The top line: The energy workforce is evolving alongside the transition. But it remains plagued by some immense challenges: nearly 90% of solar companies say they’re struggling to hire skilled labor. Making clean energy jobs more accessible is an important part of building a reliable pipeline of labor — and could in turn bolster the industry’s overall diversity, which is sorely needed.
  • The current take: “We have the opportunity to truly break the traditional mold of what the clean energy workforce of the future will look like,” said Hadia Sheerazi, manager in RMI’s climate-aligned industries program, at the panel session. “The number of people that we need in jobs right now is far outpacing the number of graduates coming out from traditional universities, who are, candidly, still being taught skills that are redundant.”

Addressing current and future workforce gaps requires detailed insights into the demographics and needs of the energy transition. But today, most sectors simply don’t have the data needed, said Elizabeth Laine, who leads DEI and talent at Clearway Energy Group. 

“I’ve actually done a lot of research trying to really drill down to what our workforce looks like compared to the available labor market,” Laine said. “That data is pretty hard to find as we try to get more granular.”

Relying on the traditional energy recruitment playbook has resulted in a solar workforce that is around 70% male, and 70% white, Laine added. That homogeneity isn’t just a problem for solar companies looking to distinguish themselves from the fossil fuel industry — a narrow hiring field will ultimately hold solar (and other cleantech sectors) back from the immense growth needed to hit global climate goals. 

Bringing in talent from outside the energy industry is essential, she added, but figuring out where to draw talent from requires first having a deep understanding of the essential skills for individual roles. That means going beyond job descriptions to skills mapping — cataloging skills associated with each role, and then identifying where those skills are coming from. 

New recruitment strategies

It also means rewiring traditional approaches to recruitment. 

For instance, Steph Speirs, co-founder and CEO of community solar company Solstice said she’s had great success hiring customer service, user experience, and user interface talent from other B2B industries.

“We are all facing the same problem, which is there’s a scarcity of experienced talent,” Speirs said. But that scarcity doesn’t mean companies have to go it alone; a growing number of programs are targeting the distinct needs of the solar industry. 

Speirs pointed to internship programs as a key workforce development tool for Solstice. Of the more than 80 interns the company has hired over the years, many have stuck around, she added, and even risen through the ranks of the company to the director level. Speirs said the Empowering Diverse Climate Talent (EDICT) program has been particularly valuable as a workforce development partner.

Meanwhile, government programs abound. RMI’s Sheerazi pointed to a Department of Energy program, Solar Ready Vets, as well as the Biden Administration’s commitment to fund training centers around the country that span tribal colleges, community colleges, and trade schools. Those non-traditional educational sources will be absolutely key to building the clean energy workforce, she added, and it’s a “tremendous boost” when companies invest specifically in alternatives to higher education. 

“The cost of higher education is frankly obscene,” she said. “It’s astronomical, and it's disproportionately falling, sadly, on women, and falling on minorities.”

Instead, Sheerazi pointed to the option for developers to develop curriculums with community colleges in local communities “to create exactly the kind of training program that we need, and to have those jobs at the other end ready for those graduates.” 

There are also opportunities for every company in the energy transition to hire formerly incarcerated workers, she added, by partnering in their state with departments of rehabilitation and departments of re-entry.

Project-level hiring

Building a network from which to pull a diverse pipeline of workers also has to start at the community level, particularly for project-level hiring, Speirs said. And for some companies, this is already in the works.

Renewable energy company Reactivate, for example, runs a workforce development training program for contractors, training cohorts from underrepresented populations. And solar company Forefront Power, which installs panels on schools as part of its work, created a curriculum about solar energy — complete with demonstrations of solar panels and inverters — that it shares with the schools it works with. (Both Reactivate and Forefront are partners of Solstice’s.)

Laine, at Clearway, pointed to internal development strategies as opportunities to improve retention in such a competitive market. Clearway’s mentorship program, for example, includes 30% wind and solar technicians, she said. 

“That desire to grow, to thrive and continue to develop is not unique to someone sitting in an office environment,” she added. “A lot of times we don’t effectively provide pathways for people who are on-site in the field.”

As in so many fields, the solar industry’s ability to retain workers is also a function of benefits and flexibility. Speirs said great healthcare, parental and other flexible leave policies, and remote work where possible should be a given, especially as companies try to recruit in a competitive labor market.

Creating opportunities for workforce re-entry, like part time and contract work, is also key to cultivating the kind of generational industry loyalty that the fossil fuel industry has had, Sheerazi said. The goal, she added, should be to make solar “an industry for generations.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on January 23 to clarify that Solstice has employed roughly 80 interns in total, not 80 interns from the EDICT program.

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