By Megan Howes, program coordinator for The Solar Foundation
Accelerated industry expansion has nearly tripled U.S. solar employment since 2010, according to The Solar Foundation’s latest “National Solar Jobs Census.” Today, over a quarter million Americans work in solar jobs, and job growth is expected to continue in many strong and emerging regional markets.
The Solar Training Network is led by The Solar Foundation and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Through original research, solar-focused career fairs, regional employer-instructor summits and an online interactive directory, the Solar Training Network improves understanding of the solar jobs landscape and lays the groundwork for a better qualified and more diverse solar workforce.
Tools and resources for workforce development and work-based learning
This week, the Solar Training Network released a new solutions-driven toolkit for the industry. Centered around themes of workforce development and work-based learning, this resource provides actionable solutions for industry members to better align education with evolving workforce needs to support stronger regional talent pipelines. Illustrated by a broad assortment of case studies and informed by industry best practices, the toolkit outlines steps to leverage existing networks and public resources as solar continues to lead job creation in the American energy sector.
Many employers cite a lack of experience and solar-specific credentials as a barrier to hiring. As solar has emerged as a mainstream energy source, job descriptions increasingly reflect a desire for seasoned installers, though jobs have been created so quickly that many candidates have little or no practical solar experience. When companies can’t effectively locate and hire qualified workers, those unfilled positions restrict growth and cause lost opportunities that hurt bottom lines.
To ensure that new industry resources and recommendations best reflect stakeholder interests and concerns, the Solar Training Network team conducted numerous interviews and convened a national meeting of training providers, small business owners, industry association representatives and workforce development professionals from geographically diverse solar markets.
Throughout these conversations, it became clear that improving communication among regional networks, integrating solar into the existing workforce development system and building relationships with external stakeholders are essential steps to managing growth at a pivotal time for the industry.
Work-based learning for a job-ready solar workforce
The ability to put theoretical knowledge into practice is a key part of job readiness in any industry. When it comes to entry-level solar workers, many employers see the most value in hands-on experience and safety training rather than formal, semester-long courses. Standardized certifications such as NABCEP are of great value to workers looking to build out their credentials for career advancement, but employers and trainers alike have expressed that theoretical knowledge only goes so far. Instead, practical experience and eagerness to learn new skills on the job are strong assets when entering the workforce.
Work-based learning in the form of apprenticeships, internships or co-ops is an excellent avenue for students to learn the basics and hone technical and problem-solving skills with guidance from a mentor, making for better-qualified trainees who can confidently and immediately meet workforce needs. It also provides a way to invest in incumbent talent and improve employee retention as workers look for new skills and advancement opportunities.
The work-based learning component of the toolkit outlines steps and best practices for employers to make proactive investments in training, and overcome real or perceived logistical, regulatory or financial challenges to implement effective work-based learning models. Key pieces of this section include steps for establishing effective trainer-employer partnerships, an overview of public funding available through the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act for on-the-job training and an implementation guide to put these tools into practice.
Workforce development: broadening the conversation
Rapid expansion of the solar jobs market has challenged the solar workforce to keep pace with demand. The workforce development system can help the solar industry to support dedicated workforce pipelines for improved talent attraction and retention. While a large part of the talent shortage occurs in the installation sector, a variety of roles such as solar marketing, sales and system design lie off the beaten path of STEM careers. Communicating diverse career pathways and the full picture of what a ‘solar job’ can look like is a key step in broadening awareness and interest in solar careers.
This toolkit defines low-cost opportunities for employers to streamline training and hiring practices and increase public awareness of diverse solar career opportunities. It suggests ways for employers to engage with the public education system to reach near-future job seekers through high-school job shadowing, integrating solar into K-12 science curriculums and more.
The workforce development toolkit also explores avenues to improve workforce diversity and establish regional cross-sector partnerships. For example, reaching out to adjacent industries like electrical and construction trades improves access a wider pool of talent with transferable skills. Using the toolkit’s action plan, small solar businesses can effectively engage community organizations such as American Job Centers to access recruitment and hiring support to small businesses, and understand how to leverage an array of other underutilized public resources for training and recruitment.
Many installation jobs don’t require a college degree. With relatively low barriers to entry and opportunities for advancement, an entry-level solar job can become a bright and powerful career. Every day on rooftops and in laboratories, offices and classrooms around the country, communities are investing in solar to create local jobs, advance sustainable energy and catalyze a brighter future for all.