McCarthy’s Training Within Industries: Proven Strategies for Building a National Solar Workforce

With a utility-scale project pipeline that’s larger than ever before, solar companies are faced with the prospect of hiring and training hundreds of workers in very short periods of time. McCarthy Building Companies, a top construction firm that has built over 2.7 GW of solar in the past decade, is taking on this challenge using a framework that dates back to World War II.

Known as Training Within Industries (TWI), McCarthy views this as a tried-and-true approach that is already helping the company meet its training and recruitment goals. First created in the 1940s by the U.S. Department of War, TWI is designed to train inexperienced workers for moderately complex tasks. For McCarthy, it provides an effective way to bring new hires on board with no experience in solar, while improving the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of each project. “It’s a way to formalize the process and provide an organized training experience for new hires, helping workers learn foundational skills that are transferable to new projects,” says Scott Canada, Senior Vice President and Business Leader of the Renewable Energy & Storage Group.

So far, McCarthy has used TWI at select projects with encouraging results, and plans to roll it out across its entire solar portfolio in 2020. McCarthy expects this approach will help meet the demands of today’s fast-paced solar markets. “We’ll have nine to 10 months to build a solar project and we need a few hundred people to be trained very quickly,” Canada says. “If we’re going to be successful, we need to be more effective at quickly bringing people into this industry and growing their capability.”

Optimizing Recruitment and Training

A successful training program begins with recruitment. For entry-level hires, McCarthy looks for qualities like mechanical aptitude, work ethic, the ability to do outdoor work, and a regard for teamwork and safety. McCarthy prides itself on hiring a large majority of employees from the local communities where solar is being built, and experience in solar can be helpful but isn’t required. To make the hiring more effective, McCarthy has started to formally train its team leaders on best practices for conducting interviews. “Making that interview step more effective has been key in making the local hire process go well,” Canada says.

Another important part of the TWI process is “training the trainers.” At the beginning of a project, managers work with foremen and superintendents to establish a set of procedures for training new hires. Once the entry-level employees are on board, training follows a specific, guided process. A supervisor shows an employee how to do a task three separate times. Then, the employee has to demonstrate at least three times that they are able to do the task.

From there, supervisors monitor an employee’s progress and check in frequently to make sure the work is going well. For each major task, they give employees a grade between 1 (beginner level) and 5 (capable of teaching the task to others). These grades provide a structured way for employees to advance on the job and get promotions, Canada says. “It allows us to transfer people between job tasks and easily transfer them to the next project.”

While this approach might almost seem like common sense, it marks a departure from the more informal training methods still used on many construction projects. It’s more rigorous and time-intensive than simply watching a supervisor do a job and then saying “okay, I got this,” Canada says. Moreover, the construction industry has traditionally relied on apprenticeships that teach workers a trade over a period of years. This may not be an option for solar projects where workers are needed immediately.

Adopting the TWI method has required a considerable culture shift among project teams. “You’re trying to change a bunch of habits that have been established over hundreds of years in the construction industry,” Canada says. However, it has already led to measurable improvements. McCarthy found it reduced training time on most projects by 25%, reduced labor hours by over 25%, and reduced the learning curve from three weeks to one week. Improved training has also resulted in fewer quality control issues and led to more efficient performance.

TWI In Action: Hazlehurst, Georgia

One recent project where McCarthy put TWI into practice was Hazlehurst III, a 55 MWdc solar installation in central Georgia, developed, owned, and operated by Silicon Ranch Corporation, one of the nation’s largest independent solar power producers and the U.S. solar platform for Shell. This project offered a meaningful economic opportunity for a region that has struggled with high unemployment, exacerbated when the nearby Husqvarna outdoor equipment manufacturer closed in 2019 and about 1,200 employees lost their jobs.

The Hazlehurst project required nearly 300 local workers. Most of the new hires did not have a background in solar or even construction, and included people with experience in retail, restaurants, or warehouses. Using the TWI method, McCarthy trained employees to perform the tasks on-site, with the goal to make them effective within a day and fully productive in about a week.

“We’ll start out with very small parts and pieces, and once they get comfortable with that we go on to expand their knowledge base,” says McCarthy Project Director Matt McMullan. “We’re not focused on training a person who’s only capable of fastening a bolt or putting on one part of a tracker, but we want well-rounded individuals that can be flexible and can be used as necessary across multiple parts of the installation.”

Silicon Ranch has found TWI to be an effective way to recruit a quality workforce and provide economic benefits for the community. “As the long-term owner and operator of our entire portfolio, Silicon Ranch is deeply committed to being a good citizen in the communities we serve and to investing in the well-being of our fellow citizens,” says Silicon Ranch CEO and Co-Founder Reagan Farr. “We seek to use local service providers and hire from the local labor pool as much as possible, and we are proud to partner with McCarthy to execute this vision. We’re excited to bring the experience of locals trained through McCarthy’s Training Within Industry  platform to bear on multiple solar construction projects as our portfolio continues to grow, and to see the platform benefit communities across the country.”

Empowering Communities and Strengthening the Workforce

McCarthy will be using the TWI method in solar projects totaling 850 MW that are planned for 2020. One of these is the Assembly Solar Plant in Michigan, developed by Ranger Power. This 228 MWdc project will be the largest solar plant in the state, requiring over 200 craft workers and 100 general laborers to complete.

Local leaders are enthusiastic about the project’s impact on the community, and in particular the impact on jobs. “Overall it’s a huge win for our economy,” says Justin Horvath, President and CEO of the Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership. “This project will bring in new dollars to support local businesses and property taxes to support essential government services, and it’s providing well-paying jobs to hundreds of people in Shiawassee County.”  

For McCarthy, the benefits of the TWI approach extend beyond the impact on the community and the company’s bottom line. They’ve also found it helps improve relationships between managers, foremen, and employees.

“It definitely shows our craft workforce that we care a lot about them, and it’s driving them to be more engaged in their job and feel better about their work,” Canada says. “It’s about viewing the workforce as an equal partner, and making sure they get a lot out of the work as they help us become a successful business.”