The ideal scenario working in any position in any industry would be reaching a point where you require no further training. You become an expert at your job and the difficulty of daily tasks turns from a rising grade to a plateau. But that’s never the case for any profitable business.
The technology that solar installers handle every day changes all the time. Combine that with shifting regulatory policies, dwindling subsidies and tariffs, and an installer’s job becomes even more complicated. What makes a company reputable comes down to day-to-day practices and employee knowhow.
It comes down to training — at all levels of a company, from installers to CEOs — well past Day 1.
Continuing solar education
Solar PV has added about 150,000 jobs to the United States market in the last decade. With that boom in solar careers comes a wealth of new people to the industry who need to be properly trained.
King considers himself an old-school member of the solar industry. The young blood joining the industry — especially in states with smaller markets like Idaho where EGT is based — need to make sure they’re working up to standard, King said.
“At least let me educate you on how to do it right,” he said. “If I don’t take the time to educate them on how to be me, then my quality will never be carried on.”
EGT holds training sessions for its employees for about an hour every morning of the work week and holds regular two-hour training sessions on Fridays — all on company time. This idea of continued and constant training was something King brought over to the company from his time at Real Goods, a solar components supplier in Northern California. He said Real Goods put education first, giving employees actual hands-on time with the technology they were trying to sell.
“It wasn’t just someone at your door selling solar,” King said. “You went there, and you learned about solar — how it worked, how it’s connected — and I always felt that that’s the best way to learn more, especially for tradesmen.”
As a result, King’s employees at EGT have classes nearly every day on anything solar — from racking spacing to battery storage to setting a panel. The company also pays for employees to take courses outside of work to become certified electrical journeymen, if they so choose. EGT even conducts information sessions on solar for employees at Idaho’s Department of Building Safety and offers training courses for solar installers who don’t work for EGT.
This approach gives EGT installers practical, up-to-date knowledge, makes regional inspections and permitting processes simpler and improves candidacy for the general solar workforce in a time of hiring difficulties.
“I get called weekly by customers of other companies who have systems installed but they don’t work right, and then the statement is, ‘I really shouldn’t have paid them everything until it got working,’” King said. “Imagine the solar industry if everyone had a system installed by someone who didn’t know what they’re doing, and it didn’t work. How long would our industry actually be sustainable?”
Learning best practices in the field
Solar education doesn’t just come from the classroom. Employers dedicated to learning the best processes for daily work can make jobs easier on their teams and quicker for their customers.
Since no two projects are exactly alike, there is no strict guidebook for erecting an array, but that hasn’t stopped pile-driving solar subcontractor Sunstall (No. 64 of the 2019 Top Solar Contractors list) from making each installation as streamlined as possible.
“As soon as we touch [a component] twice, there’s something wrong,” said Helge Biernath, CEO of Sunstall. “We should touch materials only once, and before that, we need to make sure that we really have a good inventory — that we understand what we have and where it needs to go.”
That means dedicating time to mapping out which components go where and when, being clear on what installers will work on and using equipment to move and install components when it’s warranted — to literally take the weight off installers’ shoulders.
“Taking those parts out into the field in a way to minimize stress on people — that’s also an important factor,” Biernath said. “If we do that, we can reduce stress on the people, therefore resulting in less injuries. Safety is much better because it’s a much more controlled environment, and that’s an additional advantage. Actually, people are getting more done by doing less.”
That’s especially important when your installers are working in harsh temperatures or weather conditions.
“This whole bending down and picking up stuff, I did it to myself on a project here in Bakersfield. Working in 105°F is heat stress. It’s brutal,” Biernath said. “We need to do whatever we can to minimize that. We still need to work on that and dial it in each and every time.”
Completing a project more efficiently can come down to a choice as seemingly trivial as disposing of shipping materials on the same trailer they came in on. You won’t reach peak efficiency on your first project, but recognizing where you can improve is essential. It will ultimately make your installers better at their job and save the company money.
Installers that prioritize lifelong learning — both in the classroom and in the field — can build reputable companies with loyal employees ready to evolve along with new technologies, regulations and customers.
This story was featured exclusively in our 2019 Top Solar Contractors issue. See the issue and full list of top U.S. solar installers here.