Like most industries the solar industry is facing supply and labor shortages and shipping delays. But compounding the issues for the solar industry is the goal set forth by the Biden administration to have the U.S. produce half of its electricity using solar power by 2050.
Finding qualified employees, transitioning skilled workers from related industries, and providing ongoing training to keep existing employees’ skills up to date with the latest technologies and codes are some of the biggest challenges clean energy and solar companies face. Some of these problems can be solved by developing more training programs for skilled laborers in similar industries, but the solar industry also needs to increase workforce diversity to continue to grow and meet future demands.
Record growth of the renewable energy sector and a future where solar could supply more than 40% of the nation’s electricity by 2035 – up from 3% today – necessitates record skilling and reskilling of individuals to meet the future workforce demands. A Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) analysis shows that while the solar industry is on a trajectory to reach 400,000 solar jobs by 2030, employment will need to exceed 900,000 workers by 2035 to reach the 100% clean electricity goal set by President Biden.
One problem the solar industry faces is an aging workforce.
25% of the energy workforce is age 55-plus, and as more skilled employees with decades of experience prepare for retirement, the industry could be left with a knowledge gap. A growing population pool of individuals who typically leave the workforce to retire combined with a relatively smaller population size of younger, working-age individuals to replace them, it is likely that the sustainability of a healthy labor market participation rate will face challenges in future years.
More efforts need to be made to recruit younger generations into solar energy jobs.
At a time when the value of a college education is being questioned by many young people who would prefer to avoid a lifetime of student loan debt, there is a need for post-high school education programs that will fast-track young adults into successful careers in renewable energy. Increasing economic opportunity for individuals requires that the solar industry enhance access to both credentials, including non-degree credentials, and work with employers to adopt skills-based hiring and offer work-based learning opportunities, providing financial support where needed.
Attracting a younger generation of talent can begin with solar companies partnering with high schools, community colleges and universities in key hiring regions to develop support for solar-focused education programs. Organizations can help create curriculum that is relevant to current industry needs. They can also offer students incentives to pursue careers in solar via scholarships to cover the costs of certification programs and training, as well as working with schools to partner on internships and apprenticeships that count toward degree credits.
In addition, solar companies need to be doing more to reskill and recruit employees whose careers have been impacted by the pandemic.
Women and minorities who previously worked in hospitality, education, health care, and other industries before losing their jobs or were forced to leave the workforce to be a caregiver during the pandemic represent a unique labor opportunity.
According to the National Solar Jobs Census 2020, the largest sector of employment in the solar industry are Installation and construction-related jobs, which make up 67% of all jobs in the industry. Construction and solar jobs have traditionally been dominated by white males. However, the solar industry is slowly becoming more diverse:
Hispanic or Latino workers are the only minority group to be more likely to work in other sectors of construction. More women, Black or African American and Asian employees work in the solar industry compared to overall U.S. construction jobs. This illustrates that solar companies have an opportunity to attract more minority workers, who are already demonstrating vested interest in the field compared to other construction jobs, by developing more programs to recruit and train women and minority workers.
Providing career counseling, financial support and access to technical training will be even more important for solar companies to invest in for minority groups, even more so than for younger generations.
In order to reach its full growth potential and meet governmental green energy goals by 2050, the solar industry as a whole needs to invest in programs that educate existing and future workers about the benefits of solar industry employment. Greater efforts also need to be made to educate workers with relatable skills to transition them from previous roles into solar jobs. Without greater access to training programs and financial support, the solar industry will face ongoing labor shortages that could restrain growth potential.
Elizabeth Sanderson is the Executive Director of Solar Energy International
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