Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The pulse of solar employers

At the Solar Workforce Project, we have two main tasks over the next two years: developing curriculum for white collar workers and systematically contacting employers to understand their workforce needs.

Right now, the HR task is front and center. Dr. Meghna Virick, associate professor of HR Management, is in charge of contacting the HR managers, while I’ve taken responsibility for building a database of solar employers (aided by a bevy of student assistants.)

We plan to use multiple methods to provide a convergent picture of solar workforce needs. Survey responses from a representative sample of California solar employers will allow for scientific inferences to be drawn for the entire state, while interviews with selected employers will help us understand the “why” and “how” that are hard to capture in a survey. Of course, any results that we release must protect the confidentiality expectations of our respondents.

The big push over the past month has been to build the employer database, starting with the Bay Area and expanding statewide. We began with several lists, and then added and deleted companies as we learned more.

The database will include a wide range of companies, including manufacturers (wafers, panels, modules, balance of system) — whether their manufacturing is in California or elsewhere — as well as installers/integrators, PPA operators, equipment providers and others that play a role in the industry. There is no upper or lower limit on the size of the company, and we are also including foreign companies that have their US HQ in California.

I am personally classifying the companies for their role in the solar value chain, in case we later need to do a survey of integrators or thin film manufacturers. We may also need to go back and clean up the classification — for example, to segregate “pure play” firms (like Skyline, SolarCity, or Solyndra) from companies where solar is only part of the portfolio (like Applied Materials, Areva or National Semi.)

Building an accurate database has turned out to be a far more daunting effort than we’d imagined — not to get the company names, but to identify a qualified HR professional to contact with our questions. (At a very small company, the HR manager is the president or owner.)

Our urgent priority is sending about 45 HR students into the field to interview the HR managers. Prof. Lauren Ramsay has graciously loaned us her Workforce Planning, Staffing, and Training class to conduct the interviews. Our hope is not only to understand local employer staffing needs, but also to help train future HR professionals to understand a growing cleantech industry — both from their own research, and from what the class learns as a group.

Later in 2010 or early in 2011, we plan to start our quarterly employer surveys to address questions of interest to SolarTech and other members of the state-funded SolarTech Workforce Innovations Collaborative. These surveys will be analyzed, and the results reported here, at the SolarTech or SWIC website, and eventually in academic research.

If any employer has questions about our survey — or wants to volunteer to join — they should contact Meg or me with any questions or ideas.

Photo: Dr. Meghna Virick, from her official college web page.

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