Despite improvements in recent years, the U.S. solar industry is still less diverse than the country’s overall population or the national workforce. In 2021, African American employees made up only 8% of the solar workforce, compared to 12% of the overall U.S. workforce. While women had climbed to 30% of the solar workforce, this is still significantly lower in comparison to their representation as 47% of the U.S. workforce.
Given that diverse companies perform better, it’s in every solar company’s interest to improve diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) in the industry. But many companies still lack DEIJ programs and initiatives. Fortunately, there are growing resources and tested strategies that can help solar companies as they step up their DEIJ efforts.
The first step to increasing diversity is to attract more diverse job candidates. This means going beyond just posting on job boards and hoping a diverse pool of candidates apply. Job boards are still essential in combination with other outreach. But even when you do use job boards, you can expand your pool of applicants by posting to boards like the ones maintained by Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Some local job boards allow employers to reach out to organizations that post jobs to people of different ethnicities and veterans groups. You always want to hire the best person for the job, but you want to ensure that as many people as possible see each opportunity.
Most people are not even aware of the variety of job opportunities available in the solar industry, so solar companies need to put an effort into increasing awareness.
One effective way to increase awareness is to partner with local schools and universities, including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). This can be done by attending college and high school career and job fairs, virtually or in person, not only to promote your company but also to expand knowledge about opportunities within the solar industry as a whole. Some high schools have career-based summer internship programs, so it’s important to make sure your company is part of these. If we familiarize young people with job opportunities and information on renewable energy, we can influence their career path even before they get to college. Attend the elementary, middle school and high school career day. Make the “Take Your Child to Work Day” an opportunity for even the youngest to start learning about the solar industry.
Outreach like this is crucial for the industry, especially now that the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is expected to double the solar workforce in the next decade. Finding enough workers to fill all the available positions will be challenging enough, and ensuring that the expanded workforce is diverse will add another layer of challenge.
Hiring and retaining a diverse workforce
What do you do once you’ve attracted a diverse pool of applicants? It’s crucial to continue applying DEIJ principles throughout the hiring process.
You need to ensure that unconscious biases don’t prevent hiring managers from considering all qualified candidates. Start with taking simple steps such as removing addresses and names from applications and resumes. Often people don’t realize that we all have unconscious biases, like location bias. We assume someone will not want to commute from a particular location or that someone is of a specific ethnicity based on the region or city where they reside. Looking at names, we assume common biases such as gender and ethnicity; changing a name to initials or a number can ensure that these factors don’t rule applicants out on initial screenings.
DEIJ practices do not stop at attracting and hiring diverse employees; solar companies must also take steps to retain those employees. The key is to make all employees feel valued and appreciated. To be inclusive, you can take simple actions like acknowledging multicultural holidays and events such as Women’s History Month, Veterans Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Pride Month. Many employees are now working from home, so you may want to encourage following a hybrid work model with a few days in the office. Some employees are still uncomfortable coming into the office every day, so be flexible and include them in employee celebrations and activities.
Your company can also support employees in other ways. A trend in many businesses is to add to the usual annual review to ensure that managers check in with their team more than once a year. Keeping the lines of communication open helps all employees thrive and can be especially important for those in historically underrepresented groups. Communicating, acknowledging and accepting are key.
Maintaining a strong DEIJ program
To succeed, DEIJ must be an ongoing effort with a committed champion in charge of the program. A company should get people at every level on board. Your DEIJ program should be open to everyone at the company, and it’s a good idea to include at least one person from each department.
Conversations about DEIJ are great, but it can be challenging to ensure that people follow up — especially because you’re adding this to their regular workload. To maintain a focus on DEIJ and to increase awareness, you can make it part of periodic communications, including company meetings. Employees should be required to participate in regular diversity training.
Setting goals is also key to DEIJ success. SEIA’s DEIJ Certification Program can help solar companies gain knowledge, form an actionable plan and track their progress. Companies can also conduct annual diversity and inclusion surveys and have a yearly DEI audit to ensure they stay on track with DEIJ policies and procedures.
Seeing women and people of color working at all levels of a solar company as engineers, project managers, operations managers, electricians and executives makes a difference to leadership because it gives them concrete evidence that diverse people can succeed in all those roles. They are then more likely to hire diverse employees for future positions.
The time is right for DEIJ
To bring diversity to a solar company — and to solar as a whole — both leadership and employees must embrace DEIJ goals.
Educating employees can help them realize that DEIJ will not lead to people taking their jobs; instead, we are bringing in the most qualified people, from all backgrounds, cultures and life experiences. With the increased workforce we will need in solar due to current industry growth plus the expected boom from the IRA, the issue will be finding enough workers. The more we can get everyone to understand that the goal is for everyone to win, the less resistance you will encounter for your DEIJ program.
In many ways, the solar industry is still on the ground floor, which means we’re just going to keep going up. To get the best results, we need to include everyone in this fast-growing industry. The time is right to take the leap and implement a robust DEIJ program in every solar company.
Jeri Lawson is now Director of Human Resources for Standard Solar, a leader in the development, funding, ownership and operation of commercial and community solar assets, after starting with the company six years ago as Executive Assistant. Jeri is a passionate People Operations Professional skilled in influencing change through step process implementation while championing a culture of collaboration, engagement and inclusivity. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is an active member of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE).