The U.S. solar workforce grew nearly 20 percent faster than the national average employment rate last year, according to the Solar Foundation’s 2014 National Solar Jobs Census. But like the rest of the tech industry, this sector of the renewable energy field has a problem when it comes to diversity. Women make up only 22 percent of the solar industry, while 16 percent of the solar workforce is Latino, 7 percent is Asian and 6 percent is African American, last year’s Job Census found.
But a new program from renewable energy development company SunEdison and nonprofit solar installer GRID Alternatives aims to build a more diverse solar workforce. Last month, the organizations announced the launch of the RISE (Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy) initiative, which will provide women and members of underserved communities with solar job training and job placement through GRID Alternatives’ workforce development program. SunEdison and its foundation will be contributing $5 million to the partnership – in both the form of funding and solar panels.
“The solar industry is adding jobs at a rate of more than 20 percent year over year,” said Erica Mackie, co-founder and CEO of GRID Alternatives, in a statement. “This is an incredible opportunity to connect an industry that needs good people with people that need good jobs, and that’s just what this partnership is doing.”
Over the course of two years, the organizations plan to give over 4,000 people across the country hands-on training and real-world solar installation experience, as well as to connect job trainees with solar companies looking to hire skilled workers. GRID Alternatives will also award 40 RISE participants with one-year paid fellowships in the nonprofit’s offices around the country, while SunEdison employees will donate over 2,000 hours of their time installing solar systems for low-income families and providing job-readiness training to participants.
“This partnership is making solar more accessible for everyone in America,” said SunEdison President and CEO Ahmad Chatila in a statement. “For lower income families, that means lower electricity bills, more money for necessities and the opportunity to receive valuable job training.”
SunEdison’s and GRID Alternatives’ RISE program expands on the organizations’ joint Women In Solar Initiative, which aims to bring more women into the solar workforce.
And perhaps this program and others like it are working: Last year’s National Solar Jobs Census showed that the number of women employed in the solar industry did rise, from 26,700 in 2013 to 37,500 in 2014. Likewise, underrepresented ethnicities in the solar sector also saw growth last year, but it was practically infinitesimal: The number of Latinos inched up from 15.6 percent to 16.3, the percentage of Asians and Pacific Islanders crept slightly from 6.7 up to 7, and African Americans solar workers edged up to 6 percent from 5.9. Clearly, the solar industry needs to do more to recruit and retain women and people of color to its ranks, and the Women in Solar and RISE programs are a good start.
Workplace diversity makes good business sense, according to a 2009 study published in the American Sociological Review. For every percentage increase in the rate of racial or gender diversity close to the rate in the general population, there was an increase in sales revenues of 9 percent and 3 percent, respectively, the report found.
And diversity in the solar industry is particularly important in convincing more consumers across the U.S. to go solar. Approximately 90 percent of women say that they would make or participate in a household’s decision to purchase solar panels, Mackie and Chatila wrote in a joint article for Greentech Media. And most solar panels are being installed on the roofs of higher-income households – far away from communities of color, Greentech reported in another article on diversity in the solar industry. If the solar industry is to persuade both women and people of color to adopt its technology, it needs to be able to engage these demographics – and one of the best ways to do that is to have women and people of color working with potential customers.
Image credit: Flickr/Oregon Department of Transportation
Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru