63% of Solar Firms Report Difficulty Finding Qualified Employees

By Patrick Burke | November 19, 2012 | 2:17 PM EST

Workers install solazr panels in Massachusetts. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Approximately 63 percent of solar firm employers in the U.S. said they had difficulty or great difficulty finding employees who are qualified for open positions, according to a November 2012 report released by the Solar Foundation.

About 53.4 percent of employers found it “somewhat difficult” and 9.6 percent found it “very difficult” to find employees who are educated enough or have enough experience to work with solar technology.

Conversely, about one third of employers had no difficulty finding qualified employees for job openings.

In its report, “National Solar Jobs Census 2012,” the nonprofit, non-lobbying Solar Foundation, in conjunction with BW Research Partnership, surveyed 1,004 known solar employers, about three quarters of which derive over half their revenues from solar activity.

The report was based on a phone- and web-based survey of all known solar employers in the U.S., for which there was a 20 percent response rate.

Surveyed employers included but were not limited to manufacturing, sales, distribution and installation jobs.

A primary reason for why there is a shortage of qualified employees is a lack of educational and technical training related to solar energy.

“Lack of technical experience is most often to blame for these difficulties, followed by deficiencies in communication, problem solving and analytical skills, and education,” the report said.

“These results are not surprising given reports of a continued lack of professionals with sufficient training in various regions across the U.S., particularly in the face of reduced public funding for workforce development.”

The top three reasons employers gave for why they couldn’t find qualified employees were:

-- “Not enough applicants with required technical experience.” (20.6 percent)

-- “Applicants had deficiencies with communications, problem solving or analytical capabilities.” (14.9 percent)

-- “Not enough applicants with required education.” (14.2 percent)

Other reasons included: “lack of networking,” “competition from other companies,” “applicants demonstrated poor work ethic,” and “too many resumes.”

Employers reported that solar jobs are generally not characterized as entry-level -- 50.6 percent of positions require prior experience and 40.7 percent require a bachelor’s degree or more.

Furthermore, many solar firms prefer to fill their vacancies by word of mouth and informal avenues, as opposed to classified ads and college recruitment.

“As has been seen in the previous Census studies and other clean energy reports, solar firms do not rely heavily on traditional methods of recruitment. Instead, solar firms strongly prefer word of mouth and referrals to fill vacant positions,” the report said.

Despite the lack of qualified applicants, nearly 15,000 solar firms employ 119,016 solar workers as of September 2012, which is a 13.2 percent increase from August 2011.

Nearly half of all surveyed employers expected to add solar jobs in the coming year, and less than 4 percent predicted they would need to cut workers.

A “solar worker” is someone who spends 50 percent of their time on the job doing “solar-related activities.”

In its recommendations section, the report advised workforce training providers to teach all skillsets required in the solar industry, and incorporate solar energy into curricula.

Employers are advised to support training programs so that workforce development isn’t entirely funded by the private sector.

“(P)rogram designers should look for ways to integrate solar curricula into more traditional or mainstream coursework,” the report said.

“By cultivating a workforce with a set of solar skills that enhance a more broadly applicable set of core trade (e.g., roofing or electrical) or professional (e.g. legal or finance) skills, rather than creating solar-only workers, training providers will help ensure that program graduates are diverse enough to be successful, despite fluctuations in demand for some of their skills,” it added.

The National Solar Jobs Census 2012 was highlighted in a Nov. 16 blog post on the Department of Energy’s website, and linked with DOE’s “SunShot Incubator” program that invests in solar firms.

According to the program’s Web site, DOE has invested $92 million in solar start-ups since 2007, accounting for $1 out of every $20 invested in those same companies.

“These projects aim to significantly reduce the cost of solar energy systems for American homes and businesses -- creating new jobs and market opportunities in the process,” the blog said.

“With public and private innovation driving U.S. leadership in the global solar energy market, this dynamic, ever-evolving industry will remain a critical source of skilled, quality jobs for America’s workforce.”