Cleantech Needs More Boots on the Roof — Businessweek

Cleantech Needs More Boots on the Roof - Businessweek

Damien Schott cut his teeth in the solar business by working on rooftops in broiling sunlight. When Schott, 35, started four years ago at SolarCity. which designs and installs solar systems, he was a junior installer without experience. He has risen rapidly through the ranks at the fast-growing company—from helping to bolt photovoltaic panels to shingles all the way to his current post as regional operations manager for SolarCity’s warehouse in Foster City, Calif.

SolarCity, started in 2005 by brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive in Peter’s kitchen, has grown to more than 1,200 employees. “Over the last 12 months we’ve hired over 600 employees and as of today, we have over 400 job openings,” says Chief Executive Officer Lyndon Rive. “Most of the people we hire are within the local communities. You can’t outsource this work to China,” he adds.

SolarCity’s rapid growth reflects a boom in the solar industry. The total value of U.S. solar market installations grew 67 percent to $6 billion in 2010, up from $3.6 billion in 2009, according to a June 16 report from the Solar Energy Industry Assn. (SEIA) and GTM Research. As of now, there are about 117,000 solar jobs in the U.S. up from about 93,000 in August 2010, according to the Solar Foundation, the SEIA’s research and education arm, and the National Solar Jobs Census 2010. The solar industry, like the tech industry, is challenged to find skilled employees.

Google Just Invested $280 Million

Unlike tech jobs, solar installation work can’t be outsourced to other countries because it requires boots on the roof. SolarCity’s CEO says the company makes it affordable and easy for residential customers to sign up for solar power service. The company provides solar power system design, financing, installation, and monitoring services. On June 14, Google (GOOG ) invested $280 million in SolarCity to create a fund that would finance residential solar projects. About 12,000 customers in the 11 states where SolarCity operates have chosen to finance their solar systems, with a mere 3,000 paying upfront. The systems can cost more than $10,000.

With so few people experienced at solar work, SolarCity started out looking to the construction industry for employees. In 2006, before the downturn struck the housing market, SolarCity recruiters would drive to homebuilders’ warehouses and follow their vans to job sites in search of workers, says CEO Lyndon. The company no longer needs to tail homebuilders.

“When we saw the collapse of the housing market, we definitely saw a lot of skilled people coming from the carpentry trades, the roofing trades, and home-building trades [to find] jobs at SolarCity,” says Peter Rive, the company’s chief operations officer. The unemployment rate in the construction industry stood at 15.6 percent as of June, down from 20.1 percent a year earlier.

Certain skills remain difficult to find. For example, about 72 percent of 1,425 solar-installation companies say they employ photovoltaic installers, but 65 percent report difficulties in hiring them, according to the National Solar Jobs Census 2010.

A Month to Train Construction Worker

With no experience installing photovoltaic panels, Schott’s background in construction at least meant that he had climbed plenty of ladders and felt comfortable on residential rooftops. He picked up the rest from SolarCity’s training sessions. During the first week on the job, he learned how to install panels on simulation rooftops not far above the warehouse floor. In ensuing weeks, he ventured onto real customer rooftops. “It came very quick,” he says, adding: “It took me about a month to learn.”

SolarCity also taught Schott how to take the appropriate safety precautions. For example, he learned that it’s necessary to wear a hard hat when working on a roof, unless the temperature is above 85 degrees. At that temperature, a worker may be allowed to take off the hat because the risk of heat exhaustion is higher than the risk of falling off the roof.

Even though the junior-installer position paid by the hour, Schott was offered health benefits—including medical, dental, and vision—along with paid vacation and stock options. Each employee is an owner of the company, says CEO Lyndon Rive. While SolarCity doesn’t reveal employee salaries, PayScale, which collects global compensation information, says solar energy installers with around two years of experience make from $16 to $20 per hour. That translates to an annual salary ranging from $32,000 to $41,000.

Cleantech Needs More Boots on the Roof - Businessweek

SolarCity also likes to maintain a sense of fun. On July 26, the company sponsored a horseshoe-pitching competition, with departments competing against each other just outside the break room. As a horseshoe bounced off a stake, onlookers groaned.

Career Paths at SolarCity

The company is keen to build careers, mapping out various career paths from its entry level positions. “We’ve seen junior installers progress from essentially being a laborer on a job site all the way through to being a commercial project manager working on sites for customers like Wal-Mart (WMT ) ,” says COO Peter Rive. The industry’s supervisory jobs, such as installation foremen, are typically salaried and pay anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000, according to PayScale. SolarCity is also hiring a lot of military veterans, says the COO.

As with many jobs in green technology, many positions at SolarCity do not require a college degree. Almost half of all jobs in the cleantech economy are held by workers with a high school diploma or less, compared to 37.2 percent of U.S. jobs, according to a July 13 Brookings Institute report called “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment.”

Today, one of Schott’s jobs is to handle orientation for new hires. He also manages the field engineering crew, distributes construction material, and oversees installation of solar panels. One of the favorite parts of his job is to run the grill at the Friday evening cookouts that greet installation crews as they return to the warehouse. “The guys are pretty tired, so they don’t stick around long,” says Schott.

The recruitment doors remain wide open at SolarCity. “Experience is not a requirement,” says Lyndon Rive. “If someone has the right attitude and is a hard worker, we can train them.”

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