Employees are at the Heart of the Solar Industry

This article originally appeared in the July issue of North American Clean Energy magazine.

By Mark Vogel

As with any growing industry in the construction field, the solar power industry is facing a shortage of skilled labor that needs to be addressed if the industry is going to ride the wave of growth.  According to the Solar Jobs Census conducted by the Solar Foundation in September and October of 2018, the solar industry predicts seven percent job growth in 2019 with 259,400 jobs nationwide.

Across all fields of construction, the industry is seeing a severe labor shortage during a time when it should be flourishing. According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the construction field is one of the few industries having consistent growth in the number of jobs and contracts available. We must spread the word that the solar industry is promising, rewarding, and provides a great alternative to college. What do we as a national solar installer see from a jobs viewpoint and what is our program to meet the employment demand? We strive to recruit, train and retain our employees using a number of strategies. Here are some of those tips for success, including the following.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RETENTION

First and foremost, aim to retain as many capable and skilled employees as possible by providing competitive pay and benefits coupled with a healthy and enjoyable work environment. It is easier to retain employees by making them feel valued and wanted than to find new employees who may or may not meet your human resources criteria, especially within a worker constricted market.

An effective way to achieve that “valued and wanted” goal is to gladly reward employees for a job well done with financial or other means that are measured by factors such as the quality of an employee’s workmanship, motivation or leadership skills. Our skilled solar installers can earn up to $50 per hour and all employees are covered by a full health plan and other benefits such as a 401K retirement plan. There’s also plenty of opportunity for overtime work for those employees who want to supplement their regular hours.

However, money is not always necessarily the main factor that motivates workers.  According to a study published in Psychology Today, how employees feel about their value in their workplace is often more important than what they earn. These studies show that 83 percent of respondents said management recognition for a job well done was more fulfilling than any financial rewards or gifts. Drilling down a little deeper, 76 percent found peer praise “very or extremely motivating” and 88 percent said that praise from managers was “very or extremely motivating.”

Our workforce experience underscores the validity of these “feel good” findings and is a keystone to our employee relations strategy. In an industry known for high employee turnover, 30 percent of our 3,000 workers have been with us for more than 20 years and 30 plus years is not especially unique. If companies want their employees to stay long-term, they need to show them that there is an achievable path to more responsibility and success. Knowing that a job offers significant longevity and rewards is a key factor in attracting and retaining workers, especially younger ones. 

We go out of our way to ensure that potential employees understand the longevity that comes with a company that has been in existence for more than 35 years. This means that transparency is key with new hires and existing employees. Being direct about how new employees will fit into the mold and how the responsibilities of their roles will contribute to the business, are essential. This also goes for the corporate culture. Providing these important insights and gauging the potential hire’s mindset, will help determine the right individual for the job.

Creating and maintaining a fulfilling workplace experience will certainly help attract and retain workers, whatever their age. We are constantly recruiting through various means such as online employment services, but many of our new employees come to us via word-of-mouth from our own workers, family and friends. These are the best ambassadors for recruitment and retention. As an added incentive, we give bonuses to our employees whose referrals become new hires, many of whom end up staying with us for years.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TRAINING

Installing modern solar energy systems takes a high level of knowledge and skill that along with safety in the workplace, require substantial training. A well-trained employee is a valuable employee who is motivated to do his or her best work every day they are on the job. Often, they become project supervisors and leaders and are critical factors in improving workplace safety, productivity and quality control.

Proper training is an ongoing process, especially as it relates to safety in solar and roofing installation that is crucial to both employee and employer success.  Before ever starting in the field, our new employees will get at least four hours of intense safety training covering such basics as proper use of electric equipment as well as ladder and tool safety, safe operation of forklifts, and even how to recognize and treat heat exhaustion.  To replicate actual working conditions, much of the training takes place on slanted roof structures with various forms of covering such as tile and composite shingle.   

New employees are also introduced to the intricacies and finesse of solar installation by use of a training “wall” where they learn the hands-on workings of a main electric panel and associated wiring, and how to install and disconnect such equipment as an inverter and system monitors. Along with comprehensive on-the-job training, we are confident that all of our workers—whether new or long-time employees—are fully prepared to safely and successfully handle any tasks that the job requires. 

To ensure that safety is always top-of-mind with all of our people, we employ 24 engineers who serve as dedicated, full-time safety directors to oversee safety related operations and hold monthly training seminars in our 30 offices coast-to-coast. Along with our workers, seminars are attended by all division and operations managers, and general superintendents. Our corporate policy is to provide whatever funding it takes to fulfill our motto that “at the end of the day we will send every employee home safe.”

Additionally, the roofing and solar industries are constantly monitored by the federal government through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Consequently, we work closely with Fed OSHA, and in California, Cal OSHA inspectors who are an integral part of our safety culture and are proud of the fact that we have earned recognitions of our safety records.

Training is just one part of the equation. If companies want their employees to stay long-term, they need to help employees see there is a path to their professional success. It’s widely known that the younger generations entering the workforce are eager for a career that will enable them to grow in the company. Set those expectations early in the hiring process by telling them the different avenues their career could take with the business. We also have set up a mentor program for those veteran employees to work with the newer, younger employees and guide them down a path to success.

WHAT’S AHEAD?

Although we work with more than 400 home builders and general contractors in eight states, California is by far our largest solar market. The Golden State took a major step toward achieving its net-zero energy goal by adopting a policy last year that will make solar energy systems standard on virtually every new home built in the state starting in January 2020. That will most likely result in tens of thousands of new homes being equipped with solar systems every year, helping to fuel our own growth five-fold in the next three to five years. As we move forward to keep up with this growing demand, we expect to add another 350 to 400 employees to our current base of 3,000 workers this year.

Looking ahead, we expect other energy progressive states—Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington­—will follow California’s lead, especially as the cost of solar products decrease thanks to better technology and growing demand. Thoughtful legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the local, state, and national levels is creating thousands of new solar jobs. The need for skilled and savvy employees has never been greater and we as an industry must be fully prepared to meet the challenges. Given the current labor shortages, when it comes to recruiting, training and retaining, companies will need strategies like these for success.

About the author Mark Vogel is President and Chief Operating Officer at PetersenDean Roofing & Solar- Builder Division, United States. Founded in 1984 by Jim Petersen, PetersenDean is the largest, full-service, privately-held roofing and solar company in the United States. Specializing in new residential and commercial construction, PetersenDean works with some of the nation’s largest builders and developers. With more than a million roofs under its belt, the Fremont, California-based company employs 3,000 workers and operates in 11 states: Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas. Please visit http://www.petersendean.com/ for more details.

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