The news made national headlines and had solar enthusiasts sending virtual high-fives through the social media sphere: The number of solar jobs in the U.S. grew by 21.8 percent between 2013 and 2014 — with 173,807 people now working in the sector. What’s more, the industry was creating jobs nearly 20 times faster than the overall U.S. economy. Bam.
The numbers came from The Solar Foundation‘s painstakingly compiled U.S. industry-wide annual jobs census report. The numbers were impressive, and throughout the coming year, solar execs and policy makers will no doubt be flashing the results of the independent, Washington D.C.-based nonprofit’s survey findings to help advance their causes.
At the helm of The Solar Foundation, making sure its census methodology is solid and highly defensible, is president and executive director Andrea Luecke. And that is no small task: The group’s 2014 job census efforts included 66,986 telephone calls and more than 25,655 emails to solar companies.
The Solar Foundation was founded in 1977 with a mission to increase the understanding of solar energy through research, education and training. When Luecke took The Solar Foundation’s top position in 2010 — coming from a position as project manager for the City of Milwaukee’s solar energy program — the nonprofit had a $200,000 budget, and she was the organization’s only employee. It was also the same year the organization started working on its first national solar job census.
To help Luecke manage the many tasks at hand on a nonprofit budget, “I found an intern, then I found another intern, then I found another intern,” she said. “For a long time it was just me, and these part-time interns.”
During Luecke’s time at The Solar Foundation she has led the organization through an important period of growth. Not only has Luecke helped the nonprofit become the nationally recognized authority on solar jobs and those jobs’ economic impact through a host of research reports, she also oversees the nonprofit’s additional programs, including workshops and technical assistance for local governments and schools interested adopting solar.
Today, The Solar Foundation’s budget is more than $1 million per year, and the organization has seven employees, a handful of contractors, and “we still have our intern program,” Luecke said.
As The Solar Foundation prepares to release a report on February 11 that looks at solar employment on a state level, SolarEnergy.net spoke with Luecke about the challenges the solar industry faces hiring during a time of abundant growth, the impact of gender diversity in solar, and her advice to people wanting a job in one of the country’s fastest-growing industries.
How difficult is it for solar companies to find qualified people to fill positions in a time of rapid expansion for the industry?
The industry has been very fortunate over the last several years with the housing boom and bust. There was a glut of very skilled, very qualified electricians and roofing tradespeople available for the solar industry. They were so desperate for work that they were willing to work in the solar industry for potentially less money than they were being paid in the construction industry. That was certainly was the case in 2010 at the height of the recession.
But now, as the economy has improved, those skilled tradespeople are going back to the construction industry and leaving the solar industry without this ample supply of skilled tradespeople. So what employers are finding is it is increasingly difficult to find qualified workers. We aren’t yet at a crisis level, but it is getting worse and worse for companies to find people who match their skills’ expectations.
What’s the impact of hiring from a tightening labor pool?
Of course one of the impacts is on pay. As the supply of skilled and qualified workers goes down, those that are working in the solar industry are able to command a higher wage. So it’s driving up the wages, which is great for people absolutely. But labor is a large portion of the soft costs that go into the overall cost of installing solar, and we want to make sure solar remains cost-competitive because we want people to adopt it.
How are labor efficiencies playing into the ability to drive solar costs down?
Our survey doesn’t get at where those efficiencies are taking place, but we assume in the installation labor due to new technologies, smarter racking, more intuitive wiring, as well as streamlined permitting. I think that’s really huge. Across the country there are initiatives to reduce the number of days or weeks to get a permit or interconnection application approved. All of that helps improve labor efficiencies.
We are becoming more efficient. In 2012, we saw efficiency rates at 19.5 jobs per megawatt of installed capacity. Now we are less than 15.5 jobs per megawatt. This is a really good thing. It proves the industry is stronger, more competitive.
The Solar Foundation has been tracking diversity in the solar industry in terms of both gender and ethnicity for the past two years. How is the industry doing on this front?
We have found that the solar industry is becoming increasingly diverse. All of the categories show improvement. Not only in terms of sheer number but also with percentages. We are headed in the right direction, but there is a lot of room for improvement.
As one of the few women holding a top leadership position in the industry, what does it mean to you personally to see more women in the solar workforce?
There is a very well-documented gender gap in solar. Women make up 21.6 percent of the solar workforce. Women are not as well-represented in the solar industry as they could be, and should be. Not only are they not represented in the workforce, but they’re not represented at the decision-making table.
Last summer there was a report that came out that said women make up only 4 percent of executive boards in the utility sector. To me, this signifies that women aren’t making the decisions, which I think has an effect on workplace policies, like FMLA, maternity leave and workplace culture. This is the 21st century. In my view, there’s no longer room for the old boys’ club.
The Solar Foundation has steadily garnered national attention since starting its solar jobs census. How have you enabled the foundation to become the leading authority on solar jobs and their economic impact in such a short time?
It’s brute force, and I put in the time. I am incredibly persistent, and I really care about my staff. I really care about the projects, and I care about the industry. I’m very passionate about making solar a prioritized energy form, not just part of the energy mix. I also think it helps that we are in Washington D.C. We have access to the Department of Energy, the EPA, and the Department of Labor. It’s a really good place for us to be, even though the industry is primarily in California.
There are many people who don’t have a background in solar but want to work in the industry. Any advice on how to land a solar job?
Go for it. There are so many occupations if you have a background in finance, insurance or business. If you don’t have any background, but you love solar, and you are passionate and you work hard, solar is hiring. It’s looking for people who have the right personality and fit. It’s not just about having the technical skills. There is not one cookie-cutter type of solar worker. We are incredibly diverse in our background. I think the glue that keeps us all together is our passion for making the world a better place. That’s certainly what brought me to solar.