Filling the Skills Gap in the Solar Industry Workforce

The White House recently announced a program for the U.S. Department of Energy to train 75,000 people to work in the solar power industry by 2020, many of whom will be part of a military veteran’s jobs initiative called Solar Ready Vets. This announcement shows tremendous promise to address a recognizable skills gap in the solar workforce.

The Solar Foundation estimated that the industry added 31,000 jobs in 2014 and expects to add another 36,000 jobs in 2015, proving the industry is healthy and on the rise. However, the rapid job growth is also creating a skills gap in the industry that threatens to hamstring residential installation companies looking for quality, cost-effective labor.

The industry is growing so quickly that demand for experienced solar technicians has outstripped supply of qualified people. This is a particularly troubling trend for residential installers because they are left struggling to find qualified solar installation personnel.  The industry is working to improve quality and reduce installation costs, but until we address the obvious skills gap that exists, this will not occur.

Three key skills for a Solar Technician are Electrical, Roofing and Waterproofing, and General PV system knowledge.  Many residential installers (solar technicians) are recruited from electrical companies, roofing companies, or are inexperienced and looking for a new career in renewable energy.  In most cases, installers only have strong skills in one aspect (roofing, electric, PV, etc.) but have little or no experience in the other aspects of the installation.

Unfortunately, the result of this incomplete skill set is trending toward inefficient and poor-quality installations as workers are tasked to complete pieces of the installation without the proper training.  Having worked with hundreds of high-quality solar installers, we are confident that technicians are not intentionally performing poor-quality work, they just need to be trained correctly.

In order to provide a cost-effective and quality installation of a Solar PV system, an installation crew should have all the necessary skills to install a complete system in one trip.  The challenge is that those residential installation crews are rare because of the endemic skills gap with respect to workers’ capability to complete all aspects of the project.

The NABCEP Installation Professional Certification, which serves as the solar industry gold standard for individual certifications, focuses on its Job Task Analysis and Learning Objectives.  These are well-rounded overviews of the necessary skills for PV technicians and serve as the framework for most solar training curriculum.  However, many who take the necessary training for this certification are one step removed from actually putting hammer-to-nail on a solar system.

There needs to be a better way to fill the skills gap.  One solution is to create micro-credentials. This classification of credentials would focus on training workers in specific skills (such as flashing roof penetrations), greatly benefiting residential installers.

The creation of these micro-credentials would have a domino effect, as training companies would adapt their curriculum and programs to cater to these certifications offering shorter, job-skill-focused training that fills existing skills gaps.

These credentials would still require intensive training and education, but instead of weeklong 40-hour programs, new workers would take one- or half-day training workshops, online training or even online simulations that will allow individuals to test their new skills in a simulation environment.

Everyone in the industry recognizes the need for advanced training and a qualified workforce.  We need to make sure the available training and credentialing addresses the critical skills gaps that exist in the solar industry today.