Fighting labor shortages: Strategies for recruiting, training and retaining in the solar industry

Article Originally Published on Solar Power World on Oct 21, 2019.

By Mark Vogel, President and COO, Petersen-Dean

The solar power industry is facing a shortage of skilled labor that we must address. The need for skilled and savvy employees has never been greater, and we as an industry must be fully prepared to meet the challenges. We must spread the word that employment in the solar industry is promising, rewarding and does not require a college degree.

As a national solar installer, Petersen-Dean takes steps to meet the employment demand. Here are some of those tips for success that focus on recruiting, training and retaining.

The importance of retention

First and foremost, 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 recommendations 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 stay with us for years.

Credit: Petersen-Dean

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 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 401(k) 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% 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% found peer praise “very or extremely motivating” and 88% said that praise from managers was “very or extremely motivating.”

Our workforce experience underscores the validity of these findings and is a keystone to our employee relations strategy. In an industry known for high employee turnover, 30% of our 3,000 workers have been with us for more than 20 years. 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.

The importance of training

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 undergo 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.

Credit: Petersen-Dean

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 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 across the country. 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 younger generations entering the workforce are eager for careers 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 a mentor program for veteran employees to work with newer, younger employees and guide them down a path to success.

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.

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. Legislation that requires renewables at the local, state, and national levels is creating thousands of new solar jobs. The need for trained employees has never been greater. Given the current labor shortages, when it comes to recruiting, training and retaining, companies will need strategies like these for success.

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