Notes from NABCEP: How to train and build a resilient solar company

Shawn O’Brien, President and CEO of NABCEP, during the opening session.

The NABCEP Continuing Education Conference is the best place to go for nerdy solar / storage talk and installation training courses. This year’s event took place March 27-30 in St. Charles, Mo. Every two-hour window across those three days features up to eight concurrent presentations, all covering best practices in structural and electrical solar + storage, the pros and cons of various systems and much more.

The FOMO is real. Luckily, there are no wrong choices. This year, I carved out a path of business-building sessions. Why? Keynote speaker Jody White, CEO at BayWa r.e. Solar Trade in the U.S., summed it up best on night one: “We need you guys to multiply and develop new business owners.”

Solar installers are in a weird spot — demand is high and growth opportunities abound, but pursuing those opportunities can unintentionally sink a business.

“It’s exciting to have that kind of growth. However, it can be dangerous for companies,” White noted. Learning about the latest and greatest energy storage system won’t be that useful if there are no solar businesses left to read about them! So, I filled my notes with quotes and insight for solar companies in need of inspiration for staying relevant now and succeeding in the years ahead.

Resilient planning part 1: People

A solar business relies heavily on people and products. Building resiliency into a solar business requires focus on these two areas.

On the people side, solar businesses often require individuals to wear many hats to help save on labor costs. But what happens if this person walks out the door with all those hats?

“Make sure you have a process in place for replacing that person and having a plan for continuing those skills if that person leaves,” advised Preston Booker, head of strategic accounts at BayWa r.e., during a presentation on building a resilient business.

What processes can you put in place to cross train?

Training pays

Not many solar contractors are in an area with job training programs pumping out entry level solar installers. That training burden is on you. So, what works?

Good training should have a variety of teaching methods (a mix of digital and hands-on) and work for different levels of understanding, said Brittany Heller with HeatSpring, a rad online solar and energy storage (and more) training platform.

Heller, who previously worked in the training program at GRID Alternatives, recommends having a crew that’s specifically for training new hires. That way, “when people start, they don’t go straight into production mode where they are expected to work really quickly,” she said. “They are on a training crew where they can go slow, get checked on and make sure they are doing it right and improving.”

The good news is investments in training, continuing education and the general work environment usually pay off, according to Heller.

“We don’t have a labor shortage, we have a shortage of jobs that people want to do,” she opined. “It’s important that you set your company apart if you want to attract and maintain a quality workforce. Having taught a lot of trainees that go into jobs, a lot of times there’s not great work environments on construction crews — situations where people feel like they can’t be themselves or ask questions.”

Quality job checklist
From Brittany Heller with HeatSpring:
☑ Family-supporting wages.
☑ Benefits that help support healthy and stable life.
☑ Schedule that allows people to balance things outside of work.
☑ Safety / wellness / treating people with respect.
☑ Transparent growth opportunities to
advance career and increase pay.

So does diversity

In terms of drawing in and hiring the right people to fill roles, Becky Dougherty, employee operations manager at St. Louis-based installer StraightUp Solar, suggested pursuing a B Corp. designation, being intentional about staff diversity and generally hiring in a way that reflects your community. “A lot of people might not walk into a company if they are the only person who looks and feels like them.”

Dougherty knows of what she speaks. In the four years she’s been at StraightUp Solar, it has grown from 60 employees to over 130 employees. She admits it took a while to know how to find the right people for solar.

“When interviewing, ask people for their why and purpose for applying,” she said. “Hire a person, not just a skill set. Do they love to learn?”

For its training program, StraightUp built a tiny house in their warehouse so trainees could learn how to get on a roof safely, how to attach racking to metal vs. a shingle roof, and so on. Don’t rely on past experience: “Even those coming from the roofing industry, you want to give them a crash course regardless. It’s a time and monetary investment, but it will give you retention. They will be feeling safe.”

Look the part, be the part

You can often judge the quality and efficiency of a solar crew by just looking at the warehouse and the jobsite.

“I’ve seen crews that are super organized. Trucks rolling in at 5 a.m., a cart labeled with all the parts, the next truck rolls in, and they are dialed in,” relays Johan Alfsen, senior director of training at K2 Systems. He showed an example of an organized warehouse that has a stock of pre-marked 10-degree tilt racking components with pre-assembled brackets at the ready for whenever the next 10-degree tilt job comes in, instead of wasting time with that on site.

Alfsen’s all-time pet peeve? Sharing tools or not putting them back in the right place.

“You see other jobsites where it’s just sloppy; tools and trash laying around, and it’s not efficient,” he said. “That is stuff we need to train people on.”

Crew tip: Daily or weekly crew meetings.
“That is where you encourage and help each other out. What problems did you have in your jobs this week, and what was the solution? If you did something to fix it, another crew member will hear it and say ‘that’s a great idea,’ or tell you a better way to do it. Also, it adds a little bit of camaraderie.” — Johan Alfsen, senior director of training at K2 Systems.

Resilient planning part 2: Products

Diversity was also preached for the product side of the business. The drastic supply chain woes of the last year did not seem to be a concern at NABCEP this year, but a resilient solar business needs to always be ready for sudden supply issues.

“Understand at a granular level the risk that your product lineup could be to your organization,” Booker said. Great example: LG, a dominant top-tier solar panel supplier, suddenly exiting the business in 2022. “If you were working with LG and all-in on them, the risk seemed low until it wasn’t. What is your backup plan?”

Whether you are growing, scaling back or standing still, make sure your vision is understood by your suppliers. Regularly communicate with them based on your forecast.

“If you told suppliers you need seven containers of a module three months from now, and then a month out you need 10, we need to figure out where to get more,” Booker said. “We need to have these conversations on a regular basis to stay in front of any changes.”

Being strategic with storage

The 1,000 kWh elephant in the room was energy storage — a clear growth opportunity that is also complex and easy to screw up. One attendee mentioned how they jumped into batteries five years ago and it was “a disaster” because the products at the time weren’t up to snuff, and they just generally weren’t ready operationally.

The storage sales piece should not be overlooked, both internally and with any third-party sales partners you use. Are they ready to tell that energy storage story? Many in the room felt that internal sales people will become more of the model due to the complexity of the energy storage sale.

Go with the cash flow

Sales opportunities can battle against your resiliency. Many solar installers get into trouble by accidentally building a book of business beyond their resilience.

“Sometimes you’re taking on so many opportunities because it’s exciting and you don’t want to say no,” Booker said.

For checks and balances, Booker said to watch your cash flow against sales projections.

  • Is your line of credit big enough for the growth you’re planning?
  • What is your max growth percentage rate?

One attendee relayed that 25% was their max based on their typical cash flow. Suddenly, they were on track to go well above that 25% and realized: “Holy crap, we need to get a big line of credit or slow down like crazy.”

Instead of pursuing that growth opportunity, maybe it is time to invest in resiliency?

“Process is better than profit,” is how another attendee put it, noting that they started a strategic transition from sales and install to PV system servicing in their area. They did this because 1.) their net metering rates drastically changes the ROI of a system, and 2.) so many other installers didn’t adapt, went out of business and were leaving systems stranded.

“There’s tons of opportunity, just make sure it is the right opportunity,” Booker said.
We will keep these business-building tips flowing for solar installers in the Q3 issue of Solar Builder.

Chris Crowell is the Editor-in-Chief of Solar Builder.

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