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Clean energy leaders confront ‘war for talent’

The clean energy labor market was tight even before the Inflation Reduction Act. Here's how industry leaders are fighting to retain and recruit top talent.
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Rarely a day goes by that a recruiter isn't trying to poach one of Erik Lensch's 35 employees.

"I've got head hunters calling my team left and right," said Lensch,CEO of Durham, North Carolina-based Leyline Renewable Capital.

As Lensch describes them, these "frothy" players are willing to throw money at projects and people amid a war for talent playing out in clean energy.

Standard Solar CEO Scott Wiater has seen recruiters lure employees away just so they can refill the position themselves. Others set unrealistic salary expectations and ignore total compensation like bonuses and benefits to boost their commissions.

Geoff Sparrow, Green Mountain Solar's vice president of development, has felt the other end of the squeeze, with new prospects getting paid what experienced candidates fetched only a couple of years ago.

The fight was already on due to an imbalance of project supply and demand from investors and corporations with net-zero targets. But the labor market is growing even tighter in the wake of the Inflation Reduction Act, which is expected to fuel a decade of clean energy deployment at a speed and scale never seen before.

The war for talent goes beyond salary and benefits packages. Here's how clean energy leaders are taking on the fight.

PODCAST: Factor This! analyzed the state of clean energy capital markets from the perspectives of both a utility-scale solar and storage developer and a capital provider. Subscribe today wherever you get your podcasts.

Lessons from Big Tech

Clean energy's talent crunch bears a resemblance to the tech industry's fight for software engineers over the past two decades, industry leaders say.

There aren't enough pathways for people to enter the industry. And like the tech industry did years earlier, clean energy has created a new class of engineers.

Eric Shangle, senior vice president for people and culture at Pine Gate Renewables, a utility-scale solar and storage developer, has seen salaries increase 50-100% year-over-year. He said talent recruitment challenges existed long before the Inflation Reduction Act, for reasons shared with other industries (decline of trade skills, the great resignation, among other things).

The industry must "draw in new talent from non-traditional sources and paths," and companies should look to develop and elevate talent from within to meet their needs, Shangle added.

Pine Gate Renewables, for example, is celebrating its second class of the Renewable Energy Associate Program in hopes of meeting the workforce needs of the company and its engineering, construction, and procurement subsidiary, Blue Ridge Power.

'Go beyond solar'A flock of sheep graze at a Maine solar farm. (Credit: Michael Dennett / Courtesy)

Candidates, even those new to clean energy, want more than a job. They're looking to make an impact, according to Lightsource bp Americas CEO Kevin Smith.

Salary, benefits and incentive packages are no longer enough. Smith said employees "want to create careers that matter," and want to be involved in the decision-making process.

New hires have told Smith's teams that they want to "go beyond solar" by investing in the communities they serve. That includes building solar projects with a focus on creating and conserving habitats for pollinators and integrating agriculture such as sheep grazing and beekeeping. It also means committing to recycling and procuring domestically manufactured components.

"Our team is not looking for promises and words on a website. They’re looking for concrete examples of our values and ideals in action - something they can be proud to be a part of," Smith said.

Promoting a positive and inclusive work culture remains a crucial piece to retaining and recruiting top talent. Especially when the labor market is so tight.

Vermont-based Encore Renewable Energy highlights team accountability, emotional intelligence, and individual skillsets to create an effective work culture.

"In order to deploy at the scale that we know we need to, we know that we need to have a really strong team in place," Encore Renewable Energy founder and CEO Chad Farrell said. "The competition for talent is on."

Conventional energy crossover

Now may be the best opportunity yet for fossil fuels professionals to seize the greener pastures of clean energy. Companies like Intersect Power are working to capitalize on the moment.

While the clean energy industry has long welcomed conventional energy ex-pats, federal policy support for alternative fuels markets like green hydrogen and biofuels could make the transition seamless for some candidates.

Intersect Power CEO Sheldon Kimber believes many conventional energy professionals may be "even better suited for the clean energy future that will have a lot more merchant market exposure and volatility."

Despite Intersect Power's rapid growth -- the company recently raised $750 million to develop its pipeline of solar, storage, and green hydrogen projects -- Kimber prefers to keep a lean, tight-knit organization, which often means waiting longer to hire new employees.

"We have no plans to change this approach," Kimber said.

In the long run, Kimber said he expects a power shift to play out in the labor market-- where the best and brightest minds choose clean energy first.

"After all," he said, "we’re actually saving the planet."

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