Make Hay While the Sun Shines

Andrea Luecke, Executive Director, The Solar Foundation

November 1, 2012

In today’s economy, many people are asking, “Where are all the jobs?” The solar industry, however, could soon be asking a question of a different tune: “Where are all the workers?”

Ironically, one of the solar industry’s chief problems – insufficient workforce training – is a direct consequence of its success. The solar industry continues along its upward trend, outpacing nearly all other industries and creating thousands of new jobs per year as companies expand their workforce to respond to increased solar demand. However, there is, at present, a dearth of trained workers with the requisite qualifications and experience, and many companies will have to rely on poorly trained entrants, whose substandard quality of work will invariably drive up installation costs and cut down on sales.

Now, this poses a threat to solar industry growth, and no one in the solar industry is ignoring this particular elephant in the room. And how could we? Employers in the solar industry are calling for more qualified workers, and given the unemployment rate in this country, I think it’s safe to say that the unemployed or underemployed workers of America would love the skills to start a new career in clean energy. The fact that we need to rework solar training programs is self-evident. The problem, however, is how we get there. Without public backing, this growing mismatch between labor market demand and skilled workers will only get worse – unless, that is, we start to think both creatively and resourcefully about financing and designing improved solar workforce development programs.

Financing the Next Generation of Solar Workers, a report released today by TSF, SolarTech, and the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP) is certainly an important step in the right direction. In this report, we examine current solar workforce development needs and consider potential funding solutions to the problem. Now, while this is a handy report, with lots or great information, our aim is not to instruct, but rather to spark a discussion, one that we hope will lead to concrete solutions for creating the best possible solar workforce of tomorrow.

When I say “we,” I think it’s important to emphasize the power of building this from the bottom-up. As leaders in the solar industry, we are in a unique position to view the industry holistically and promote intra-industrial cooperation and innovation. For example, in our report, we listed three funding structures (public/private partnership, revolving loan program, and crowd sourcing) and analyzed their viability. Regardless of our findings, our emphasis is on cooperation and innovation from the entire spectrum of stakeholders. Just look at SolarMosaic, an online forum fostering relationships across the solar industry, which teamed together “entrepreneurs, coders, finance experts, and changemakers” to raise more than $350,000 from over 400 investors for the installation of five rooftop solar power plants. This is the type of innovation that occurs in nascent industries, and it is exactly the type of effort we need to help develop new and improved solar workforce development programs.

As the saying goes, “you have to make hay while the sun shines.” Our industry has an opportunity to not only maintain its growth, but also, to improve upon its past success. We cannot do this without highly trained, experienced and safety conscious workers. Instead of suffering a setback at the hands of our own success, we should come together to figure out how to design and fund the solar workforce training of tomorrow.

Hey, nothing succeeds like success, right? Maybe I’m biased, but I’m going to double down on solar…