A surge in construction of solar and wind projects is great news if we’re serious about hitting the renewable energy target, but where will all those busy builders come from?

The large-scale solar map in the April issue of EcoGeneration showed 418MW of plants under construction, already beating the 314MW commissioned, but hinted at an astonishing 6,600MW of projects in the pipeline. Whether they’ll all get built no-one knows, but the trend is for major expansion. And that’s just solar. The wind sector is also picking up thrust.

It seems certain that the engineering, procurement and construction companies competing for work will also find themselves competing for workers.

“For quite a while the sector was quite depressed, so it was easy to find people but there weren’t many jobs for those people – but the situation is pretty much flipped on its head now and there’s a tidal wave of projects all about to kick off at the same time,” says Rob Lawrence, director of renewable energy at recruitment company ACRWorld Australia.

Lawrence says employers who are flexible will be more likely to find who they’re looking for. Companies that are not fixated on finding “like for like” candidates with experience in wind and solar, and that can recognise the value of transferable skills from other industries, such as mining, gas or oil, will find they have more options. “It’s a different challenge,” he says.

“The skills to build a project – in terms of construction management, scheduling, procurement – they’re all interchangeable,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter what you’re building, those skills can be applied to different areas.”

The ability to adapt to working in remote areas, and to be well versed in health and safety issues, come naturally to workers with experience in any resources industry.

Lawrence tips workers in oil and gas as particularly ripe for cross-pollination of skills. “The type of construction it is, it is very transferable into renewables,” he says. “But there are definitely barriers.” For a start, workers coming out of the fossil fuel resources boom have lofty expectations of what they should be paid, “so it’s about re-educating them in terms of what a fair salary for the trade is within the renewable sector.”

A former gas or oil worker’s resentment about taking lower pay in a sector that is slowly clawing market share from dirty fuels is one thing, but joining the renewables crowd can also feel a bit like they’re joining a religion. People who work in clean energy are almost evangelical about the possibilities of wind and sunshine, whereas oil and gas workers display little positive emotion about taking what’s in the ground. “They don’t meet up very well, those two types of people.”

But raw ideology has its limits, and as renewables become mainstream Lawrence feels the sector has a responsibility to welcome any and all recruits who join the fray. “It helps with the engagement of more and more people within renewables, which helps with selling that story about renewables to more and more people.”

The boom in projects is starting about now, he says, first in Victoria and then “a massive tidal wave of projects, wind and solar, all the way down the east coast, will kick off about the same time” later in the year.

There can be genuine constraints when a bunch of construction jobs happen at once. Will there be enough cranes to hoist propellers into place if five wind farms are being built in the same state at the same time? But Lawrence doesn’t see human resources as a constraint. “You just need to think a little bit more laterally about transitioning people from other areas,” he says. “It makes no sense that you’ve got all these people out of work in mining and oil and gas construction, and then a booming renewable energy sector that’s crying out for people. Why would you bring people in from overseas? It doesn’t make sense.”

He doesn’t think salaries will be pushed up that much, and there’s no way wages will lead to cost blowouts – especially as the cost of technology keeps dropping.

Missing in the middle

“There is a heck of a lot of projects being developed across utility-scale wind and solar,” says Phillip Riley managing director Scott Robinson. “There is a shortage of junior development people. The industry suffered quite a bit a few years ago; there were a lot of redundancies but not a lot of hiring, so there isn’t a great deal of young people coming through. There’s a gap there.”

Robinson says there is an opportunity to hire people who have worked on other types of infrastructure projects and hope that their skills are transferable to renewables. “There is a shortage of talent there, but we can get over that. It will take companies being open-minded about transferable skills and experience. That’s the key.” A bit of extra training may also be required.

There is a lot of demand for senior development managers, Robinson says, but he is confident they can be found in Australia. He admits some recent hires have been sourced from offshore but says his preferred strategy is to track down Australians or New Zealanders who were attracted by projects overseas and lure them back.

“Three to five years ago when there were no jobs they had to find work, and they found a heck of a lot of work in Asia and other parts of the world,” he says. “Now a lot of them are very happy to come home because there are jobs, but they are quite well-paid jobs these days.”

The challenges in the construction and commissioning recruitment area will be in design, he says. “Some of the utility-scale solar projects that have been constructed or are being designed now, some of that work is being done offshore,” he says, citing European-based EPCs that win a mandate in Australia and take a lot of the work back home to do.

“All the engineering consulting firms want these types of resources at the moment – around the 10-years [of experience] mark, at the principal level within the consulting firms – there is a shortage of those types of people … or you need to be creative about how you find them.”

The past 12 months has seen upwards pressure on salaries, with the example of a role requiring five years’ post-qualification experience demanding $150,000 whereas a year ago $120,000 would have been sufficient to fill the post. “I would expect salaries to increase, yes, but how much I really couldn’t comment.”

Recruiters have to go beyond the usual avenues of Seek or LinkedIn, he says, and wring the most they can out of social media and niche job boards and news sites. “We need to be creative about how we engage with people in this sector,” Robinson says. “Renewables is a very motive industry, so people want to help each other out and progress the industry.”

Phillip Riley is also working on partnering with a registered training organisation “to give us market-ready candidates”.

Welcome to work

Polyglot Group general manager of energy, infrastructure and German clients Jan Rieche says there are simply not enough project managers, electrical engineers or the local help required to assemble 100MW solar power stations in the middle of nowhere.

“These are serious challenges for EPC companies,” he says.

Polyglot’s strategy is to cast its recruiter’s net here and offshore, with workers sourced from overseas perhaps also being tasked to train local workers.

Workers prepared to relocate to Australia temporarily will need 457 or 400 visas. A 457 visa can last from six months up to four years but is really only suited for highly skilled workers, such as engineers, he says. The three-month 400 visa can be extended for another three months but no applicant can work for more than six months in a year. “They’re good enough for setting up a project, training up the people and then going back to whichever country you came from.”

Rieche says a recruiter’s involvement in applying for a visa on behalf of a candidate may add about two to four weeks to the process.

A jump in construction activity matched with a shortage of skilled workers will likely push wages higher. “We’re experiencing, probably over the last three months really, almost a mini explosion of wages for people with experience.”

A project manager with a medium level of experience who may have signed up for a base of $110,000 will nowadays command between $140,000 and $150,000, before incentives and allowances for working on site, he says.

Offshore, Rieche says Europe is a good source for skilled renewable energy workers, particularly the UK (following changes to feed-in tariffs which saw the industry shrink last year), Germany and Italy. Closer to home, Japan and China are likely to harbour plenty of talent.

Workers around the world who keep tabs on which regions are hot and which are not will know Australia is “supposedly or really booming”.

About three or four local recruiters specialise in renewable energy, he says, but between 10 and 15 claim expertise in it. “The real problem at the moment is that it doesn’t matter how many recruitment companies there are, the people just aren’t there. That’s the issue,” he says. “Some of those people are getting pretty annoyed getting a call every day saying there is a new entrant in the market looking for a senior PM.”

Polyglot also provides HR advisory and immigration advice. “We try to give local companies as well as overseas companies as many options as possible.”