Jan 11 (Reuters) – U.S. clean energy companies are offering better wages and benefits, flying in trainers from abroad and contemplating ideas like buying roofing and electrical repair shops just to hire their workers as companies try to outperform a labor shortage that threatens to derail. President Joe Biden’s climate change agenda.
The Cut Inflation Act, enacted last year, provides for an estimated $370 billion in subsidies for solar, wind and electric vehicles, according to the White House. HomeJan. 1, American consumers can take advantage of those tax credits to upgrade home heating systems or put solar panels on their roofs. Those investments will create about 537,000 jobs a year for a decade, according to an analysis by BW Research Commissioned by The Nature Conservancy.
But with the US unemployment rate at a record low of 3.5%, companies say they fear they will struggle to fill those jobs and that plans to ditch fossil fuels could stall. Despite layoff announcements and signs of a slowdown in other parts of the economy, the job market for clean energy jobs remains tight.
“It feels like a big risk for this expansion. Where are we going to find all the people?” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association trade group.
The shortage is anticipated to hit electric vehicle and battery production especially hard, as well as solar panel and home efficiency installations, forcing some of the companies to take bold new approaches to finding workers.
SK Innovation Co Ltd of Korea, which makes batteries for Ford Motor Co. (FN) The all-electric F-150 Lightning pickup truck in Commerce, Georgia, has increased wages and benefits as its U.S. workforce grows.
The battery maker advertises wages of between $20 and $34 an hour, above the Georgia median hourly wage of $18.43, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It also covers 100% of the costs of the life insurance and matching retirement plan contributions of up to 6.5%, above the national average of 5.6%, according to the Plan Sponsor Council of America. And the company provides free food at work.
“Georgia’s talent pool is not really huge. But we are trying to improve some of our policies to better obtain and retain workers,” said an SK official who declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the matter.
Georgia state officials said the SK hiring has been a success considering how quickly it had to ramp up production to meet the company’s obligations to automakers.
While National Residential Solar Power Installs SunPower Corp (SPWR.O) is aggressively recruiting, Chief Executive Peter Faricy said the company is also looking at what he called “crazy ideas” to secure labor, including buying businesses just for its workers.
“I’m not suggesting we do this, but I want to give you an order of magnitude of what we’re considering. For example, should we buy a roofing company and turn them into solar installers? Are we going to buy an electric company and acquire 100 electricians?” ” he said.
SunPower has also held talks in the past year with panel maker First Solar Inc. (FSLR.O) about developing a solar panel that would be easier to install, allowing crews to outfit two houses per day instead of just one, Faricy said.
SunPower’s competitor, Sunrun Inc. (RUN.O), is deploying drones to inspect roofs prior to installation, reducing the number of workers needed to scale roofs. It also rewards the best teams with office parties.
“The best thing you can do is play the employee experience…it just makes the industry more fun, more engaging,” Chris McClellan, Sunrun’s senior vice president of operations, said in an interview.
Orsted offshore wind power developer (ORSTED.CO), a Danish company planning to build projects on the East Coast, hopes to bring in employees from projects in the UK and Asia to help train staff. State reports have indicated that New York and Massachusetts face large gaps in the offshore wind workforce.
“We’re creating a kind of ecosystem where we don’t just have an offshore wind academy, but actually train the trainers of the future,” Mads Nipper, chief executive of Orsted, told Reuters.
The Biden Administration has repeatedly promised that the new green energy jobs would be high-paying union jobs.
But many of those jobs have lagged behind the fossil fuel industry, according to a 2021 study by BW Research, as clean energy companies have tried to contain costs to compete with entrenched industries. The IRA seeks to address that by linking the prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements to allowances.
Those provisions, and hiring challenges, have put pressure on some employers to use union labor.
Learning from his previous hiring challenges in Europe and Asia, Orsted signed an agreement with the Construction Unions of North America to insure workers.
Even Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN.O)A company that has been embroiled in disputes with workers trying to organize has used union labor to build the electric charging infrastructure for its fleet of electric delivery vehicles in Maspeth, Queens, New York.
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.
Corrine Case, an electrician represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said she was paid $43 an hour to install the charging system at Amazon.
Case, a single mother, said she was excited about the job security offered by the growing demand for electricians to install charging stations.
“Our field is constantly changing due to new energy sources and being a part of that is amazing,” he said.
FREE TRAINING FOR WORKERS
In their search for workers, solar, wind and electric vehicle companies have expanded programs that offer free and subsidized training to military veterans, women and ex-prisoners.
SK told Reuters it has been recruiting at military job fairs and American Legion chapters and collaborating with programs like the Georgia National Guard’s Work for Warriors and the Institute of Manufacturing’s Heroes MAKE America.
Some solar companies have tried to recruit veterans, saying skills learned in the military translate well in the industry.
Utility-scale solar developer SOLV Energy, SunPower and Nextracker partnered last year with nonprofit Solar Energy International to fund a women-only training program for solar installers. More than 30 women attended the week-long course in Colorado.
In October, the nonprofit Solar Hands-On Instructional Network of Excellence (SHINE) partnered with the Virginia Department of Corrections in a pilot program to train 30 inmates and recently incarcerated individuals to install solar panels. SHINE director David Peterson said the group is discussing expanding the program.
In California, the nonprofit organization Grid Alternatives has trained 150 inmates at the Madera County Jail on solar installation since 2017 and is expanding its program this year to other facilities in the state. Potential employers are more open to hiring ex-inmates once they see they’ve received some form of training, said Tom Esqueda, outreach manager for the nonprofit organization.
In Los Angeles, the nonprofit Homeboy Industries, which works to rehabilitate former gang members, is using potential job opportunities for solar panel installers to help recruit for its state-funded jobs program. Homeboy trains 50-60 people a year as solar panel installers.
More than 80% of people who have gone through the training in the last year have found jobs in solar energy, according to Jackie Harper, who oversees the program.
“I’m going to stick with this,” said Marco Reyes, 28, who participated in the program after his release from prison in February and earns $23 an hour as an installer in Valencia, California.
Now he plans to train on the electrical end of the solar installation, which would increase his salary.
“Everyone has the opportunity to move up the ladder to a better position,” he said. “This job for me is life changing.”
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Reporting by Nichola Groom and Valerie Volcovici; Edited by Richard Valdmanis and Suzanne Goldenberg
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