Posted 7 February 2013 4:25 PM by Tom Cheyney
Part 11 in a series: First Solar spends more than $1 billion annually with over 1,000 U.S. suppliers across 35 states. In this ongoing series, we will explore the inspiring stories of companies growing in partnership with us.
The sight of a massive, utility-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plant under construction can be awe inspiring, with millions of shimmering glass panels lined up, row after row, across swaths of wide-open desert. While the clean technology on display may be visually dramatic and a testament to solar power’s coming of age, consider the personnel situation. The tradespeople and the professional and administrative staff hired to put these installations together are working on types of projects that have, until recently, never been built before. Matching the capabilities, experience and temperament of prospective employees with the unique requirements of these first-of-their-kind construction projects is the purview of CLP Resources, one of First Solar’s staffing partners.
It’s not just a question of casting the hiring net nationwide to find workers with “the right stuff.” The local permitting process for huge plants like Desert Sunlight, Topaz, AV Solar Ranch One, and other big projects required a strong commitment by First Solar to create jobs on the local level. The vast majority of hires must come from the communities around the project sites themselves, something that makes the search a bit more challenging, according to CLP project manager Jerry James.
“The challenge comes in trying to find somebody local,” James explains. “First Solar doesn’t want to ship people in from out of state. The dilemma is matching skill sets with local talent. Given the size of these projects, especially Desert Sunlight and Topaz, when you do these job fairs, you’re speaking to 1,200 people, and these people have no idea what it is they’re going to be doing. They’ve never seen this type of build, they’ve never seen this type of construction before.
Tilt bracket installation at Topaz
“They think it’s concrete and wood, and actually it’s ground prep, post pounding, and trenching for electrical,” James continues. “It’s very hard to find people who have experience building utility-scale power plants. You have to find the skill sets and match the people that worked in wind, that worked on substations or find electricians that worked in high voltage. Show me that you can work outdoors in the heat, show me that you are mechanically inclined.
“It’s difficult, in the sense that you have to know what each actual person does, and we’re trying to interview and qualify people properly to know what types of skills they need to have, to get that out of them,” he notes. “You can build a project anywhere in the world, but in that community you may only have 50 percent that is actually qualified to work in this industry. And out of that you may be lucky if you get 25 percent who apply, and many fewer that meet all requirements.”
One group of workers that has proven highly adaptable to solar project work is U.S. military veterans. With their experience tackling unknown challenges and overcoming obstacles in the most difficult conditions imaginable, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans have proven to be well-suited to work at the project sites. First Solar and CLP make it a priority to hire veterans and work with a number of organizations, including Orion International, the Lucas Group’s military division and the Marine for Life program, to do so. The companies also have special programs to recruit women and minorities workers.
Once hired, the new workers first go through a thorough safety orientation, something both companies take very seriously. First Solar won CLP’s worker safety award in 2011 on the basis of its very low ratio of injuries to hours worked over the course of the year. Then the actual onsite training regimen begins.
“We normally bring in 10 to 30 people on the first day, and also bring in individuals like a superintendent from First Solar who is experienced in building these plants,” James says. “We’ll break off into groups of 10, and start to show them the post machine, how the string layout is done, and we’ll train these individuals as the project develops. Then as the next 30 come in, we’ll break off a few of the first group and make them leads, and they’ll be in charge of the new guys and train them. It’s a continuous cartwheel effect; you start someone and get him trained, and he eventually trains someone else.”
Post installation at Agua Caliente
The cumulative job-creation impact of these big PV power plants has been profound. James cites internal statistics from January through November 2012 that put the man-hours worked by hundreds of CLP employees on the California construction sites alone at more than 1.13 million for that period. Few have put in more hours than the project manager and his staff. “We’re there the day before the project starts and we’re there when the project ends…working 14 hours a day, 6 days a week. This is all I’ve done for 18 months. I live and breathe First Solar.”
You can learn about job opportunities constructing First Solar’s solar power plant projects at www.clp.com/clpcentral.
Contributor Tom Cheyney is Chief Curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs' solar practice. He is the former Senior Editor of PV-Tech.org/Photovoltaics International.