The good news for anyone who wants to work in the solar energy industry is that workers are in demand. It’s a different story for employers who need staff, though, as many face a shortage. Creativity will be needed to find enough people to support growth within the industry.
The Solar Industry needs More Installers - and Electricians
U.S. solar energy installations soared 47 percent in the first quarter of 2023, according to research by Wood Mackenzie, as easing panel supplies alleviated industry gridlock and allowed stalled projects to be completed. Wood Mackenzie expects the solar market to triple to 378 GW by 2028.
That growth as well as the Inflation Reduction Action (IRA) will help create hundreds of thousands more jobs, according to the National Solar Jobs Census, with solar employment nationwide forecast to rise from 255,037 in 2021 to 538,000 by 2032.
Many of those jobs are going unfilled, however, with recent data showing growth in demand for green skills that exceeds supply. Washington State Governor Inslee told Politico that “having the technicians and the engineers and skilled mechanics, that is going to be a challenge in the United States.” That shortage exists even though the IRA includes strong incentives for employers to pay good wages and benefits, with tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects up to five times higher if contractors and subcontractors use registered apprentices and journeymen workers and pay prevailing wage rates.
The shortage of workers needed to install solar power is not just for solar workers. Rewiring America estimates that 60-70 percent of single-family homes will need to upgrade electrical panels to accommodate a fully electrified house, leading to a need for 1 million more electricians.
Not everyone faced such a dire shortage, but, for various reasons, companies still keep a close eye on the job market. “We don’t have a shortage,” Puget Sound Solar (PSS) general manager Will Sumner told us, and “we’re not lacking in any position. We tend to find good people.” However, he also noted that “what we’re lacking is workers that are not white men. The goal is representing the community we reside in.”
Solterra Solar CEO Aimee Carpenter similarly said that “we happen to have all the people we need at this exact moment.” She also noted, though, that “it can change at any time. Losing one person impacts many things. There’s a required ratio of one electrician to two apprentices. If an electrician moves on, two apprentices are at risk. If we have a gap of one electrician, it can take months to fill.”
A Multitude of Causes for the Shortage
A recent survey of companies nationwide in the renewable energy industry by the U.S. Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) showed that the talent pool is small and many people do not have the right training or technical skills. 89 percent of solar companies reported difficulties finding qualified applicants due to competition, a small applicant pool and a lack of training, experience and technical skills.
A key reason for the shortage is a mismatch between supply and demand, Border States magazine explained. “Not enough younger electricians are entering the industry as experienced electricians are retiring. More electricians will be needed to meet ever-increasing electricity needs.”
Other issues, Grist noted, include more people are attending four-year universities, vocational education declining and technical schools being short of money and people. Additional issues, according to Border States, include accelerated retirement timelines for Baby Boomers during the COVID-19 pandemic, younger generations not being as interested in skilled labor and Gen Z workers valuing flexible hours and remote work that is not always possible.
Low salaries may exacerbate the shortage. The 2021 median annual wage was $47,670 for solar panel installers and $56,260 for wind turbine technicians, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, barely above the $45,000 median pay for all occupations. Salaries are slightly better for electricians, at $60,000. The pay may be even less attractive for petroleum system and refinery operators who want to shift industries, as the Washington Post said their 2021 median annual wage was $79,340.
Initiatives are Underway to Resolve the Issues
Given the shortage of solar industry workers and electricians, companies and governments are developing solutions to overcome the gap.
Some clean energy companies will be forced into bold new approaches to find workers, Reuters observed, such as offering better wages or flying in trainers from overseas. SunPower Chief Executive Peter Faricy told Reuters that he is looking at "crazy ideas" such as buying companies just for their workers, and Sunrun is deploying drones to survey roofs so it can reduce the number of workers. Businesses are also hiring people such as experienced oil and gas or coal professionals from areas of the economy that are shrinking. Other opportunities include recruiting at high schools and career classes, working with trade or vocational schools, hiring a staffing agency to find workers, and improving productivity.
To find more workers, Sumner said, PSS brought in workers from as far away as South Dakota and Mexico. To ensure a steady supply of workers, Sumner is also working on partnerships with organizations such as El Centro de la Raza.
Governments have also developed solutions. The IRA, for instance, includes $200 million for states to train contractors over the next decade. In Washington, lawmakers passed the Climate Corps bill (HB 1176 - 2023-24), which Governor Inslee said in Medium creates opportunities for the climate-related workforce statewide and will provide recommendations on how to grow the workforce.
Another solution is hiring more women, the Guardian observed, as trades in general and electric work specifically are overwhelmingly male. Key reasons, The Guardian observed, include harassment and exclusion. According to ASES, “hiring more women is going to be just as much about creating a safe space and focusing on empowerment as it is about effectively delivering training.”
A number of organizations in Washington have also set up apprenticeship programs. Puget Sound Electrical JATC (Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee) training director Ryan Bradt said his organization provides training in three programs that last 2-4 years and lead to certification for electricians or technicians. LECET’s (Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust) Aubrey Newton said it has workforce training and development programs across the state that include on-the-job training, leading to good pay and benefits.
Installers as well as utilities also provide training through apprenticeships. Seattle City Light, for example, offers apprenticeships as paid positions to help people interested in skilled trades get the experience they need for the electrical utility industry. Sumner told us that his firm had just graduated its first class of apprentices in an unofficial program that gave participants the 4,000 hours they need to become an O2 electrician.
A solution that could help more people enter the industry, Carpenter suggested, is a faster pathway to becoming a tradesperson. “An electrician’s career path is good and solar jobs are a big part of growth of the economy,” she said. However, “it is a two-year pathway for an apprentice working 40 hours a week to become a residential electrician. Small firms don’t have the ability to hire people and wait two years. There has been talk about making solar its own category.” Since solar apprentices and solar electricians do a limited scope of work rather than wiring the entire house, she suggested that a narrower and shorter certification process specific to the industry could be beneficial.
The Path Ahead
Washington State as well as the nation are clearly on the path to more solar power. Careers in the industry offer many benefits, and there is a need for more workers. To meet that need, companies as well as governments and schools will need to look for innovative solutions and new pathways for education that provide the workers firms need to meet demand.