Australia wants energy security. Clever and experienced renewables workers want job security. This sounds like a job for the nation’s clean energy recruitment superheroes, writes Jeremy Chunn.

If the science is right, we know the future relies on renewables. After clean energy generation is built at sufficient scale to replace polluting forms of supply, the world will be a better place. In Australia, that means building massive new wind and solar plants in time to fill the void left by our dying coal fleet.

It sounds like important work. It is important work. But in Australia the renewables sector is boom or bust, which is what you get when there is no clear direction from government.

It makes for a job market where skilled workers aren’t offered much security and employers struggle to pull workers from better-paying sectors. In short, everything’s a bit upside-down.

“There is just no certainty there on the policy front, and that means a lot of companies are only giving fixed-term contracts for wind farms that they’re building … but had they more confidence moving forward they would be offering permanent opportunities,” says ACRWorld director of renewable energy Rob Lawrence.

“They’ve been a victim of the market conditions, really. For such a long time before this boom there was just no certainty within the market. No-one could take people on with any confidence this was going to happen. Now that it has happened it’s almost like, they just can’t catch up.”

No new direction

The May election involved a strange game of wait and see, and with the Coalition still in charge developers are slightly more cautious than they were in the lead-up, where every expert thought Labor would win in a landslide.

Still, 2019 is a renewables boom year, with more than $20 billion in projects on the go, according to the Clean Energy Council. “We’re the busiest we’ve ever been,” says Lawrence.

This may be a busy market, but it’s nowhere near as tight as the start of 2017, says Phillip Riley regional manager Ryan Hauville. “There was just a crazy amount of project activity [in early 2017], where most EPCs, developers and contractors were looking for specific wind or solar experience.” The problem was that, until then, only a relative handful of projects had been completed in Australia. “Supply and demand was a big mismatch at that point.”

Back then, it was typical for an employer to require some key recruits to have solar or wind experience but the remainder for a project could be plucked from infrastructure, mining, oil or gas. “Some of those sectors were slowing down, so they saw renewables as a longer-term option,” he says, “although there was a bitter pill to swallow with salaries, which probably weren’t comparable.”

The surge in projects since then has delivered gigawatts of electricity to the grid but also generated a fresh pool of experienced talent, he says. “There is a much bigger candidate pool now.”

Connections count

Things have changed since then and nowadays grid-connection specialists are in high demand, says Polyglot senior manager renewable energy and environment Liz Floyd. People with technical background in power systems, grid modelling or engineering and who have good relationships with AEMO are in “extremely” high demand, she says. “That market is very tight.” All it takes is a little bit of experience in the local market to get an interview.

It’s a market where someone with the right skills might be sitting there holding two or three job offers, which is great for them but not for the employers. This means a recruiter will often have to push an employer towards a realistic salary range, “and we will sometimes need to give them the brutal reality check,” Floyd says. “It’s about educating them about what candidates are typically looking for.”

It’s all very well wanting to be part of the clean energy solution, but employers in renewables are in many ways like all the rest, says Freshwater Group founder and managing director David Young – they prefer to hire people who already have the skills and experience. There are not enough engineers in the world, Young says, and it’s been a problem “for a long time”.

Renewables companies are competing for them, just like all the other sectors are. But Young says other types of skills among those who simply want to get into clean energy should qualify them to at least get a foot in the door. “The sector isn’t as open as I think it should be,” he says. “I understand why, but ultimately that’s a very short-term view of fixing the immediate need in the business, whereas if companies were thinking longer term the transition into renewables for someone with a background in electrical engineering, say, is not such a huge leap, but yes of course it needs some training, some support.

“If companies were more open to that transition and providing that support and training and spending a bit more time finding out who the people are who are most transferable and adaptable, then they would be in a better position in terms of hiring,” he says.

For example, he suggests instead of labouring over a search for someone with PVSyst experience, why not find an electrical engineer who wants to enter the sector and train them on PVSyst, “and then you’ve added to the pool of people”. The sector is growing, and one of the brakes on its growth is a shallow talent pool. “If there are not enough people, you can’t deliver things properly.”

It’s more than money

If people are attracted for altruistic reasons, that’s great, because they probably could earn more working in other areas. “The sector typically pays less than other equivalent sectors where people might come from,” Young says. Engineers in oil and gas are paid a lot more, he says. It’s hard to lure them over to the sunny side of the energy game.

In other parts of the sector it is relatively easy to find good candidates. While recruiting for a construction site manager role for a wind farm, Bradman Recruitment Group director Michael Green says he was “blown away” by the quality of the candidates. “At the moment there seems to be not much demand for wind people,” he says, “although the solar market seems to be holding up OK.”

Green’s reading is that the sector is following the general economic trend, whereas renewables has a history of dynamic growth in times when the rest of the country is simply muddling along. Another factor, of course, is the returning Liberal government’s lack of enthusiasm for pushing renewables within its official energy policy. “Demand is average,” he says, “and wind has really dropped.”

That doesn’t mean he’s sitting around doing nothing, as there are still roles that are tough to fill. Primarily, it’s very hard to find people who have negotiated power purchase agreements “successfully”, he says. These people often come from a business development background and are the types who perform well when dispatched like hounds to sniff out the potential for a PPA. “The bottom line is they have to have good business development skills to get out there and communicate with people and negotiate.”

A search for talent will draw inquiries from folk whose CVs show they’ve negotiated PPAs, “but when you ask them how many they’ve landed, that’s the telling question,” he says. “Some have landed some, and some have landed none.”

They’re hard to find, and being the successful negotiators they are they’ve upped their salaries. An experienced PPA negotiator is worth at least $250,000, in Green’s view.

The new economy

What attracts talent to clean energy and why do they leave whichever sector they are in? “Fundamentally, people feel it is the right thing to do,” says Young. “It’s the future; it’s where we’re going.” It becomes a choice, he says, of stepping from industries which may be in such gradual decline that a descent in fortunes is almost invisible, but the outlook is obvious: non-polluting solutions to sourcing energy must be found. “It’s where we’re going, so people decide, ‘I want to be part of that. I don’t want to be stuck in the past.’”

Large-scale renewables is also competing for civil engineers and geo-technicians with any of the huge infrastructure projects around the country. Electrical engineers are in demand in many other areas and software engineers who might work well in clean tech start-ups are cooped up in large IT environments where they pick away at discrete tasks. A broad-ranging challenge in a clean tech start-up could be just what they need to reconnect with the world.

Sales folk are also in demand; consultative sellers, with soft skills required to build relationships while always maintaining credibility, with questioning skills and negotiating skills. Tenacity and goal-orientation are also valuable. “It’s a much broader skillset than the hard seller,” Young says.

Too much too soon

The downfall of RCR Tomlinson was an example of ambitions over-reaching the available human resources. When the EPC couldn’t find enough people with experience of large-scale solar to deliver a big order book of projects, it turned to graduates and fairly junior engineers. “It was great for those people, because they got the experience,” Young says.

The collapse was a disaster for shareholders and creditors, but the relative newbies employed by RCR had no trouble finding work when the company went into administration. “Hiring managers and recruiters were just all over RCR people,” he says. “It was a mad scramble.” In a grim way, the EPC’s rise and demise has a silver lining – a bunch of new solar workers are in circulation.

The collapse of RCR Tomlinson continues to reverberate through the industry, Hauville says, and EPCs are moving towards contractually assuming less risk, which will be otherwise borne by developers. “I’ve had that confirmed by several developers; I think that will be the trend now.”

This only highlights the importance of finding the right talent to manage grid connection, of course, a skillset Hauville says is in “massive demand”. “There is a real lack of resources in that regard,” he says. “It’s probably the tightest skillset there is in the renewables sector.”

Companies have been hiring graduates with power systems majors and throwing them in the deep end. They may start with no experience, and they may not enter grid connection manager roles, but they are leapfrogging into positions where much more experience is usually required.

The solution to a small talent pool for niche skills is to set up targeted, fast training. Or, cast the net overseas. “We may see a trend of people coming from more mature markets, such as Europe or the US.”

There are not quite enough graduates produced in Australia, and anyone with an engineering degree printed overseas will likely get a permanent residency visa, Young says. “That’s pretty much a given – and it’s a positive, because Australia needs more engineers.”

Sourcing talent from overseas is no easy task, even for a recruiter with an international network. And then it can take more than two months to get the paperwork through the Department of Immigration.

Ups and downs

The market can change quickly, and this year marks a slowdown from 2017 and 2018. Those who “dipped in” to solar and wind may make their way back to the sectors they ventured away from. Construction staff have plenty of options with infrastructure projects closer to the cities. Many of those who tasted renewables back when they were needed most will be reluctant to leave the sector, however.

“There is a genuine passion about renewables,” Hauville says. “People buy in to the broader picture of the projects they are building. That still resonates with a lot of people; it’s just whether or not there are the projects there to hire everyone.”

If the market is in a “steady state” – neither slumping nor surging – it may simply be a pause induced by the Coalition’s election victory in May. In the lead-up to the election developers were running financial models for both election outcomes, where a Labor win included an opening of the floodgates as federal policy became aligned with clean energy proponents.

It didn’t happen. But many state governments are pressing ahead to reach ambitious targets for introduction of new solar and wind generation.

New to the scene

Make no mistake, labour costs are high in Australia – even when compared with Europe and the United States. The Queensland government’s attempt to restrict all solar work to licenced electricians, no matter if that only meant carrying and mounting panels, would have made the job of finding staff even harder in the state. “Something like that could really hinder the growth of utility-scale construction market in Queensland,” Floyd says.

Entrants to Australia who are overlooking the market may be reassessing whether the time is right or not. Not that anyone’s saying it’s doom or gloom here, but global giants will always have other options. Floyd cites an Italian-headquartered EPC firm that is filled with optimism for opportunities in Australia; a Europe-based developer that’s been told by some that it’s too late to take part in the energy transition in Australia is also feeling buoyant about what greenfield or partially developed sites there are for the taking. “They see the long-term opportunities in the Australian market,” she says. “It is a bit varied.”

Floyd’s top worry is that bad policy is passed at state or federal level to the detriment of the clean energy juggernaut; it could be the feds ruling that new life must be breathed into wheezing coal plants. Anything that inhibits investment would be a worry, she says, but if the state targets remain unmolested and Canberra tunes a wee bit more into renewables “there will be positive growth and fantastic job opportunities, particularly in regional areas”, she says. “The economics and demand from private industry is strong.”

Build it, Bob

Construction roles are hard to fill at the moment, Lawrence says, and he is particularly busy filling wind jobs. There just isn’t enough talent – and it’s not as easy as pulling someone over from just any sector. “With some of the specific installation work and commissioning and technical roles, all the local people in the market are taken.” The other options are poaching from competitors or looking overseas. Solar roles are a bit easier to fill, but it’s still a tight candidate pool, he says.

Turbine manufacturers responsible for filling roles and that are tapping international talent are up against the clock, anxious of the time it takes to get visas sorted and project delivery dates. “They’re very busy with projects all over the world,” Lawrence says. “If you’re taking people from another jurisdiction you’re only creating a hole elsewhere, so they need to recruit more people – and they just don’t have the people available.”

It’s the makers of wind technology, he says, who are struggling the most to recruit.

All this pent up demand can ignite a mercenary spirit in the market, and salaries are being driven upwards. “It’s one of the good things about the shortage in supply is the salary expectations are going up,” Lawrence says. “People’s expectations have to be met, because they just have to get these projects done. Expectations are going up, but companies are more and more willing to meet those expectations.”

The surge in activity and resultant paucity of talent has exposed some companies for having inadequate in-house training. They should have been employing graduates and training them for the past few years, ready for deployment when things got busy. Instead, they must now play bidding wars. “They’ve been caught short.”

Taking on extra graduates at this stage may do more harm than good, as their training will only sap resources already hard at work elsewhere in the firm.

What about after the RET runs out in 2020? Lawrence expects the market will start dying down. Not quiet, just “normal” … as opposed to red-hot.

It’s always busy

It’s also not easy to find utility-scale wind and solar developers, says Green. “You have to dig very deep to find them.” It’s no wonder, when the job description can include everything from finding the land, negotiating with the property owner and municipal and state authorities, selecting an EPC, and working on contractual arrangements and financial arrangements, depending on how much responsibility an employer wants to load up the role with.

Bradman also recruits for positions in Asia, where Green says the offshore wind sector is particularly active in Taiwan and Japan, and solar in Thailand and Vietnam. “There’s a lot happening up there,” he says. “If it’s quiet in Australia I’ll do more work in Asia, and vice versa. As long as I’m busy recruiting somewhere, I don’t mind where it is.”