A worker assembles solar panels. Credit: Meg Oliphant / for the Energy News Network

A recent report indicated that clean energy employers were struggling to find workers before the pandemic struck.

In New Hampshire, creating clean energy jobs is only half the challenge.

Then comes finding workers to fill them.

A small state close to the lure of cities such as Boston and New York, New Hampshire has historically struggled to retain younger workers.

That’s true for the state’s clean energy sector as well. A recent report by Clean Energy New Hampshire indicated that clean energy employers were having a hard time filling jobs in recent years.

The coronavirus pandemic has likely scrambled those trends to some degree. Still, some in the state’s clean energy sector say more should be done to prepare the state’s clean energy workforce for the eventual rebound.

“When we make this transition into a new norm … let’s focus on some of these industries that can have a double impact of putting people back to work and helping to transition our energy and generation resources,” said Mike Behrmann, director of business development at Clean Energy New Hampshire.

He described a disconnect between training, policy and employment that accounted for the difficulty companies have had bringing in new workers. Young people graduating from college see more opportunity in bigger cities, leaving local companies with fewer skilled workers to hire. Meanwhile, he described a lack of training opportunities for those who choose to stay in the state and could potentially fill clean energy roles.

Behrmann co-founded Revolution Energy, a small renewable energy business. When his team wanted to expand, they saw plenty of interest from potential new hires, he said. But he didn’t have the capacity to train them on the job, and he said that few formal training opportunities exist.

Now is the time to change that, he said: Investments in New Hampshire’s clean energy industry will fuel job growth to attract new graduates. At the same time, government training programs can help get people who are unemployed back to work. And all of this could advance the state’s economy and put the state’s clean energy progress on an equal footing with other New England states.

Stressing ambition over experience

Despite the difficulties cited in the report, some business leaders say finding new employees isn’t an issue as long as they’re open to a range of experience. When the business is small, employees will end up doing multiple jobs anyway, so some training on the job will be inevitable.

Growth “is on my mind all the time,” said Laurence Bleicher, owner of Energy LB Resources, in Nashua. Bleicher works with facility owners to find opportunities for efficiency improvements, and then sells them technology, like HVAC systems, to help make those improvements. He works mostly with contractors and an occasional employee to help with sales, but would like to bring on a permanent employee to focus on customer relations.

“I don’t think it would be particularly challenging,” he said about hiring. While he’s aware that people say it’s difficult, he’s not looking for someone with extensive experience or a very specific skill set. Whether they come from an engineering background or a business background, a new college graduate would be a good candidate, as long as they have ambition.

He acknowledged that many young graduates move to bigger cities. But there are still going to be people who want to live in the suburbs or in smaller cities and towns. “You don’t have to live in Boston to be part of this whole larger cultural ecosystem,” he said.

That said, he does want his company to grow even more. The products he sells customers come from other developers, but he’d really like to have someone in-house working in a research and development role: a “tech guru,” experimenting to find new ways to save energy. But Bleicher doesn’t have the budget for that. Ideally, he’d be able to find a grant opportunity to help launch that work.

Paul Lesure has a similar perspective. He works as the vice president of sales and marketing at Granite State Solar, which has a 22-person team. The company offers home evaluations, solar project proposals and installation services, with a team of in-house electricians and installers.

“Finding good people is always the key in any business,” Lesure said. He stressed aptitude over experience: A job candidate who’s worked in construction can be trained in solar, and Granite State’s team has enough collective experience that they can train new hires. Many of Granite State’s installers have decided to train for their electrician certification, and the company reimburses tuition costs.

“The company is about the people and having the right people on the team and being engaged,” Lesure said. That “really is the driver, and the goal is not to change that as we grow.”

Growth is a key question, especially moving forward during the pandemic and through recovery.

Clay Mitchell, a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire and Behrmann’s co-founder at Revolution Energy, said job growth at the state level could be pushed by a statewide clean energy goal. “The number of jobs and the nature of jobs in this industry, I think, correlate strongly with the state policies that are in place to get that industry to flourish,” he said.

Lesure, who also serves as general manager of Granite State Solar’s Vermont sister company, Green Mountain Solar, agreed that a clean energy goal could help. But, he added, “I think it really depends on the quality of the standard itself.”

He noted that while Vermont has a goal of having 90% renewable energy by 2050, only 10% of that energy as of now needs to be produced in the state. “So I think, yes, it’s good, but I would want to see New Hampshire drive their own energy independence with that.”

Behrmann said now is an opportunity to help propel New Hampshire’s clean energy sector. “I don’t want us to trip up after this pandemic and just try to re-engage and rebuild industries that should have been changed or adjusted or transitioned 20 years ago,” he said. He added that federal funding is important—not just business loans but investments in large-scale development. The offshore wind industry, for example, could bring major job opportunities to New Hampshire, he said.

“This is one of those incredibly rare tragic situations where we have to dig deep and ask ourselves how are we going to transition coming out of this,” he said. “Because what we were doing wasn’t working.”

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.