By Devin Welch, chief strategy officer of Sun Tribe Solar
In most industries, if a report is being issued, there’s a good chance that someone has done something wrong. News coverage parrots the executive summary, and the message is often clear: It’s time for drastic change; a wakeup call that shines light on an otherwise ignored issue.
So you could forgive the confusion of outside observers when last month headlines about a study started to appear, but in the place of the usual damaging story was a report that offered a thoughtful, nuanced discussion about the importance of diversity. Perhaps most exciting was that the report, released by SEIA and the Solar Foundation, pointed to a way forward for all of us who work in solar.
While there’s a long way to go, the report paints a picture of an industry whose leadership is largely addressing this issue in a thoughtful, systematic way. Bright spots abound: today, representation of Hispanic- and Asian-Americans in solar equals or outpaces rates found in the U.S. workforce as a whole. 73% of solar employees surveyed felt their firms cultivated a “culture of respect, equity and positive recognition of differences.” And the percentage of companies with formal programs in place to increase representation of women and people of color has increased dramatically in just a few short years.
But in all the media coverage of this year’s solar industry diversity news, a key takeaway was frequently passed over: diversity isn’t just good for our industry’s image — it’s the engine that’s going to help us find our way beyond the energy systems of the past and into a brighter, more sustainable future. In fact, it’s the only way we’re going to succeed. Without diversity, our larger shared goal of a world in which safe, clean, reliable energy sources are providing power for our communities will be kept out of reach.
A look at jobs numbers helps explain how. Nearly every sector touts its job creation numbers, and in solar we’re no different — often proud to point out that over 242,000 Americans make their living in our industry, with a workforce that has grown 159% since 2010. Even with a slight recent dip, the image below is largely positive news:
But where solar really stands out isn’t just the number of our jobs, but the quality of the opportunities available. A Brookings Institution study, “Advancing Inclusion Through Clean Energy Jobs,” released in April of this year shows that if workers in this country are looking for stable, family-supporting jobs in a growing industry, clean energy is the place to be. The study identifies the mean hourly wage nationally as $23.86 (this is largely in line with the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics figures, which show a $24.98 rate). It then goes on to point out that “the hourly differences between a clean energy economy occupation and one elsewhere in the economy can equate to a raise between 8 and 19%, if not more.” Even more exciting was the study’s finding that “while the earnings floor is significantly higher for clean energy economy jobs, their competitive pay also extends to those workers earning higher wages.” In short: prosperity within clean energy is felt up and down the ladder of our organizations, from entry-level workers on up. If you need a visual representation, this chart (from that same Brookings Institution study) provides additional clarity:
As an emerging and thriving industry, we have the responsibility to ensure that the potential prosperity that comes with these jobs is equally shared. Failing to take action on diversity now will lead to another generation where the opportunity to build a better life for workers and their families bypasses some parts of our workforce, or even some communities entirely.
A lack of focus on diversity will also have a much larger, and potentially catastrophic, impact on our industry as a whole. Today, we sit at an important crossroads in a society-wide conversation over how we produce and consume energy. A growing number of Americans are learning about clean energy like solar, and are increasingly demanding that the utilities and companies they do business with make the transition away from traditional energy sources and toward renewables.
But even with this growing momentum, the move from environment-damaging energy sources to clean energy like solar is far from guaranteed. If we’re going to succeed in the single greatest evolution and improvement to our electrical grid in history, we’re going to need the absolute best, most talented workers on our side. Study after study shows that diverse workforces lead to increased productivity, higher financial returns and better decision-making. In this transformative business, that competitive edge isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity.
We don’t have time to sit back and hope that diverse teams will build themselves — our window for being able to make a real impact on our climate and our planet before it’s too late grows shorter by the day. All of us in the solar industry need to find a way to build diverse teams now, so that together, we can make a difference. At my own company, Sun Tribe Solar, we’ve made a concerted effort through programs like GO Solar, which we’ve built in conjunction with the City of Charlottesville, and which provides a real pathway to jobs after comprehensive and accessible training. And we’ll continue to look for ways to improve.
Going forward, there’s a real danger for our industry: that we’ll sacrifice diversity on the altar of fast gains, explosive growth and the need to scale teams quickly that often leads to teams being built through existing networks.
But this is a false choice; it’s not a question of diversity versus speed. The real question is whether we’re willing to invest in diversity now — in hiring practices, training, support and family-supporting salaries — so that we avoid paying later in the form of teams that aren’t equipped to help us create the significant change needed to build a stronger, more sustainable world.
Devin Welch is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Sun Tribe Solar, a Virginia-based company focused on building a brighter energy future through sustainable partnerships. Before Sun Tribe, he served as the CEO of Barefoot Atlas and on the World Wildlife Fund’s Market Transformation Initiative team. He is a founding member of the Charlottesville Renewable Energy Alliance and sits on the boards of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Tom Tom Foundation, Charlottesville Climate Collaborative and Amazon Aid Foundation.