Emerging Careers: The Exploding Solar Industry

solar1.jpg Whether you’re looking to change the world or want a career in an industry that’s only going to get bigger, solar may be for you. Along with wind, geothermal, and other clean tech industries, solar literally produces the power to change the world.
According to a 2008 economic study by Navigant Consulting, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008’s extension of solar tax credits through 2016 will lead to some 440,000 permanent jobs and $232 billion in investment. Greenjobs.com is even more optimistic, predicting that the solar sector could employ two million people by 2020: 60 percent in manufacturing and installation, 20 percent in sales and marketing, and 20 percent in engineering. And a report by the American Solar Energy Society and Management Information Services suggests the overall renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors could generate 37 million jobs by 2030, though solar will be a subset of that larger number.

These bullish employment predictions have been tempered by the worldwide credit crunch, economic recession, and falling fossil fuel prices. In the fall of 2008, the stock prices of public firms crashed and valuations of startups did too, making it harder to raise money and leading to greater dilution for trying to. In 2009, a number of companies have announced layoffs, reflecting the challenge in raising money for capital-intensive projects. In a still-tiny industry, compared to the overall energy industry, competition from these workers will make it that much harder for those breaking in – and it wasn’t easy to begin with.
Don’t despair. The industry has been growing at 40 percent a year since 2000, and at worst the current economic climate will slow that growth. Companies will continue hiring – your job is to get as smart as you can about the industry and the opportunity within it that you want.
Breaking In
To find a job in solar, you’ll need to get clear on what sector of the industry you want to work in, what type of company you want to work at, and what skills you bring to the table. “The market is a buyer’s market, so my clients can be very particular in terms of their staffing plans,” says Debi Gerstel, founder of Artemis Associates, a retained search and organizational development firm focused on placing people in the solar industry. “There are a lot of people looking for jobs; those are not necessarily the right people to fill the vacant spots.”
Many product companies in the solar industry are at an early stage of development. Their hiring priorities are necessarily guided by their need to create build out their engineering and product development team, and they’re looking for people with well-defined technical skill sets. As these companies successfully develop their product, they bring in people to help figure out how to manufacture the product. Only after the company starts to ship product is it likely to build out its business team, including its business development, sales, and marketing teams.
Installation companies, on the other hand, are often on the lookout for installers – ideally people with construction experience, especially as roofers and electricians.
Those with finance or consulting backgrounds have the best shot of finding opportunities within the solar divisions of existing Global 1000 companies and utilities or at Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) providers.
When you’re considering a firm, you’ll want to understand what customers they serve. “I receive a bunch of resumes from software sales people,” says Gerstel. “Unfortunately, I usually can’t do anything for these people. The companies I work with are typically VC-funded startups that are developing their initial products as opposed to building channels and generating sales. As the market matures, there will be a need for more salespeople, but in my experience, those opportunities are typically few and far between.”
Find out if they target the residential, commercial, or government market. Once you understand their target market, it’ll be easier to make sense of their technology, their approach to financing, their marketing, the market size they’re after, and the type of regulation they’re dealing with.
Depending on where you are in your career, you’re likely to have an easier or harder time finding a job. Those just starting out who are able to take an internship or start off installing panels may have the easiest time breaking in. Career changers are going to need to show that their skills will translate, and that may involve getting involved in local solar initiatives as a volunteer or taking some coursework. As the industry grows, opportunities will grow with it, so you might consider starting to build some street cred in solar now for the eventual opportunities down the road.
All candidates should learn as much as they can about the industry through information interviews and reading industry publications. You’re also advised to think through what you can bring to the company. “It says a lot about who you are when you walk in with a set of informed questions about it. Know what you’re selling, know what you’re buying, and why,” says Nick Ellis, Managing Director at Bright Green Talent.

Frank Marquardt is the author of The Solar Job Guide and Green Careers, and a contributor to How Green Is Your City? He has contributed to 100s of career guides over the past 10 years. Frank is also director of content strategy at Native Instinct, an interactive agency.