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Tackling the Solar Skills Gap

March 25, 2021
Austin, TX

While the pressure is on the solar industry to grow exponentially to meet zero emissions targets, a skills gap has emerged as the solar workforce struggles to keep pace.

The solar industry needs to grow, and it needs to grow quickly.

The US government recently pledged to cut electricity-sector carbon emissions to zero by 2035.

This is quite a challenge. And the pressure will be on the solar industry to step up to the plate if our country is going to hit this target.

Consultants Wood Mackenzie have estimated that, to reach the 2035 zero emissions goal, the solar industry will have to grow five to ten times its current size.

This creates a problem. And that problem is the solar skills gap.

Labor Shortage

The solar industry in the US has seen an average annual growth rate of 49 percent in the last decade.

Unfortunately, in recent years, growth in the solar workforce has not been keeping pace.

One of the key reasons for the shortfall was the introduction of the Section 201 tariffs imposed on solar modules and cells in February 2018.  

Beginning in early 2017 when the trade petition was pending, developers decided to delay a lot of utility-scale projects because of uncertainty, supply shortages, and increasing module prices.

Ultimately, the delays meant less installed capacity than had been anticipated in 2018 and a corresponding loss in jobs.

Lost Investment

By the end of 2018, the number of solar jobs had fallen by 3.2 percent, to 242,000, according to the Solar Foundation.

That was what the data showed in terms of the decline in solar industry headcount. But the Solar Energy Industries Association has estimated that the solar tariffs effectively cost the US 62,000 jobs and $19 billion of investment in the sector.

So, while the solar industry needs to grow by at least five times to reach the 2035 zero emissions target, the size of the solar workforce actually contracted as a result of the solar tariffs.

The skills gap is there for all to see.  

Consequently, it is no surprise that hiring has proven to be a major challenge for solar companies.

26% of new solar industry hires in 2019 were due to staff turnover or retirement.

2019 National Solar Jobs Census

Small Applicant Pool

Data has shown around half of solar industry employers cite a lack of experience, training, or technical skills as key reasons for experiencing difficulties hiring the employees they need.

However, beyond that, the second most common reason for hiring difficulties is a “competitive job market and small applicant pool”, according to the Solar Foundation.

One of the key challenges solar companies face is trying to formalize training processes in order to ensure workers learn foundational skills that can be transferable to new projects.

The issue of providing workers with transferable skills is key as this will help the industry to retain experienced and qualified employees. Losing such workers is a headache for solar companies as it means they have to locate, hire and train new workers.

Just over a quarter (26 percent) of new solar industry hires in 2019 were due to staff turnover or retirement.

However, there are reasons for optimism.

Up-To-Date Training

There are a number of tried and trusted strategies that solar companies can implement to ensure they reach their workforce development goals.

One of these is to make use of resources focussed on workforce development. In other words, this means contacting training providers, community colleges, and workforce boards, and expanding work-based training programs that allow entry-level employees to learn on the job.

Solar is a rapidly evolving industry and solar companies need workers with the latest skills. Even highly skilled workers may be lacking the most up-to-date training.

This is where Workrise can help.

Through training, cross-training, and other worker-driven programs, workers are able to keep up with innovation and stay working.

Meanwhile, given the unpredictability of demand, solar companies need a hiring agency that can find qualified workers, train workers and certify them.

And, equally importantly, solar companies need an agency that can do these things quickly.

The demand for skilled workers will never go away entirely, but as recent history as shown – in particular the introduction of solar tariffs – there will always be fluctuations in how much skilled labor is required.

The solar companies that are best able to cope with such fluctuations will be the ones to prosper in the future.

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