Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What employees do solar installers want?

SJSU has finished the first in its series of solar employer surveys. Recently, Prof. Meg Virick presented an hour summary of the insights gained into what employers want, in a one-hour webinar hosted by SolarTech that attracted 42 listeners.

In February and March, we surveyed 52 solar installers, and heard back from 32 of them. Of the respondents, 12.5% also manufacture their own products their own manufacturing. While 100% sell PV, 25% do solar hot water and some also did concentrated solar power, solar cooling or cool roofs.

Overall Trends

From the HR managers, 2011 is shaping up to be a much better year than 2010. Last year, 22% of the companies downsized and 28% increased. This year, 56% expect to increase with a median staffing increase of around 13%.

We asked these companies about both their overall staffing needs, and then focused specifically on sales people.

Excluding sales, the most popular job category was installers — half the companies were hiring installers, at an average of 10 installers each. Other major job categories are technician, electrician, project manager and engineer. (However, the technician stats were skewed by one company planning to hire 100 workers here.)

Recruiting Sales People

The survey asked installers what sales positions they were most interested in hiring one of six categories:
  • Entry Level Sales (Residential)
  • Mid-Level Sales (Residential or Commercial)
  • Senior Salesperson (Residential or Commercial)
  • Inside Sales
The most popular job listings were mid-level jobs, both residential and commercial.

As with other scientific research on staffing, the survey asked about knowledge, skills and experience. Some knowledge and skills were similar between the two most common jobs, but others varied dramatically.

Common to both types of jobs was knowledge of general solar industry concepts and (to a lesser degree) utility rate analysis and an understanding of the technology.
For residential sales, by far the most important knowledge was of sales and marketing concepts. The most important skills were speaking, social perceptiveness, active listening and persuasion.

For commercial sales, employers really wanted system sizing and costing knowledge, with system performance second. The desired skills were critical thinking, complex problem solving and judgement/decision making.

Employers also painted a very different view of compensation: The average residential sales rep had 60% contingent pay (i.e. commission) vs. 20% for commercial. At least one company gave its residential sales reps no base pay, while another gave commercial reps 95% base pay.


As a former biz dev guy, my personal opinion is that the surveys presented two different (and internally consistent) pictures.

The residential salesperson has to be good at personal selling a consumer durable. This would be also true for real estate, cars, electronics or other consumer durables. Given the nature of the business, it’s important to close the sale and move on.

In contrast, the commercial salesperson is managing a solution sale. His or her responsibility is to understand the customer’s needs and pick a unique solution (likely in the millions of dollars) to meet the firm’s needs. The sales rep builds trust over time through competence and responsiveness to those needs, and likely puts several person-days or person-weeks into scoping the sale.

For More Information

The slides and a complete video of our April 19 presentation are available online at the SJSU Solar Workforce website.

SJSU will be summarizing the survey in detail as part of our year-end report that will be posted to the website.