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Keys to Hiring and Retaining Solar Panel Installers

Man installing solar panel on roof

As momentum gains for exploring alternative energy solutions, it’s a good time to consider how solar companies will ensure sufficient staffing to sustain the exponential increase in production that’s driving recent success.

Over the past two decades, solar energy has grown from a pure niche market of small scale applications toward becoming a mainstream electricity source. In 2016, nearly 40 percent of all new electric generating capacity was solar-based. Meanwhile, the cost to install solar dropped by more than 70 percent since 2010, which has led to> a sharp rise in the number of photovoltaic power stations, or solar farms, being built.

Because of this, a majority of new solar industry jobs added in the last five years — 93,199 positions — have been installers, according to a 2016 Solar Foundation survey. And despite growing efforts by public and private solar training organizations, 84 percent of installation firms report significant difficulty finding qualified candidates. So what’s driving the difficulty and how can energy employers strategize to ensure sufficient staffing to continue to build this growing industry?

Key challenges in staffing

According to Collyn Varnes, business development director for Aerotek, there are five key challenges that solar farms face when hiring installers:

  1. Experience. Unlike the traditional power industry, which has a vast trained workforce at all levels of experience, solar energy is new enough that there are far fewer long-tenured workers.
  2. Geography. Solar farms are usually built in remote areas that offer the vacant acreage necessary to operate, but employers with contractual obligations or a desire to hire a local workforce don’t have access to a large population of potential workers.
  3. Competition. Training new employees to perform the work is not overtly challenging, but the demands of the job means it’s not for everyone. Exposure to the outdoors, physical requirements, tight schedules requiring long hours, repetitive work. There may be other, less physically intensive occupations competing for the same workers at the same time, or other opportunities in the same area that offer a higher compensation that will create a competitive landscape.
  4. Mobility. Solar farm jobs move; once a new facility is up and running, solar farm builders advance to the next worksite, often in another state. Some of these newly trained employees will follow their employer, or go where the next project is, but not all. Per diems and/or travel cost may be considered to encourage the trained transient workforce to go where the work is, but needs to be included in the overall project cost.
  5. Volume. A typical utility scale project can employ 150-300 people for an eight- to 10-month construction period,” notes Varnes. “With a typical attrition rate of 15-25 percent, that means we are always recruiting, needing a pipeline of almost double the required workforce to be able to meet manpower needs and top grade the underperforming workforce. This is a huge demand in regions that are typically less populated to begin with.”

Sharing the workload

For many companies, it makes sense to work with a recruiting partner to take care of most of the labor management responsibilities from beginning to end:

  • Hosting the job fair
  • Providing local labor market analysis in the preconstruction stage
  • Sourcing job candidates
  • Screening interviewees
  • Extending job offers
  • Conducting background checks/drug screenings
  • Handling employee W-2, paychecks and taxes
  • Onboarding and training
  • Performance management
  • Working with client companies to ensure OSHA compliance
  • Retaining workforce and filling vacancies
  • Offboarding

“For high volume engagements, having an onsite program is particularly well-suited for solar farms,” Varnes says. “Onsite programs are designed to take on many of the time consuming yet necessary daily tasks and let the client focus on what they do best. The onsite team is designed to serve as a conduit between workers and solar farm management, ensuring that any issues are resolved as quickly as possible to avoid interruptions in business.”

“We work in partnership with the client to ensure that the workforce is engaged, satisfied and safe,” Varnes explains. “Making workers feel valued leads to greater productivity and keeps them in the industry once they’re trained, which ultimately helps feed the growth of the industry by helping to develop the qualified workforce nationwide.”

Developing this deep pool of an experienced workforce especially helps when the work moves from location to location. “We’re constantly networking and building relationships with people with the skill sets required so we can keep them employed for a long period of time,” Varnes says. “For instance, if a job is ending in Florida and a new one is starting in Georgia, we can re-activate those contract employees who are interested in ‘following the work’ to a new location.”

Want to learn more about hiring in alternative energy? Contact Aerotek now.