When Terrell Smith walks through his neighborhood in East Baltimore, he sees boarded-up windows, empty lots and trash-strewn alleys. But now, he also sees solar -- and not just solar panels, but people working in solar jobs.
Terrell is one of a cohort of young African-American men from Baltimore’s Civic Works job training program who have spent the last month learning how to install solar with GRID Alternatives, helping 10 families here go solar as part of a pilot program in partnership with Baltimore, a city that could greatly benefit from the economic opportunities solar can bring.
“It’s great for people in the neighborhood to come out and see solar on their rooftops, and see young people like me working,” he said. “It shows that the community is improving.”
For Terrell and countless other people in economically struggling communities, solar is not always an obvious career option. But with the solar industry adding high-quality, living-wage jobs at a rate of 20 percent a year, solar is a growing force for economic empowerment in the places that need it most.
Just as solar is a positive economic and social force in diverse communities, diversity is good for solar: it’s good for companies’ bottom lines, our industry’s long-term success, and for the country’s economy.
That’s why GRID Alternatives and SunEdison have partnered on a national initiative, Realizing an Inclusive Solar Economy (RISE), to increase diversity in the solar industry and connect people like Terrell who need good jobs with an industry that needs good people. It’s an issue the industry as a whole should care about a lot.
It’s good for our bottom line
In an article we wrote last year, we made the business case for gender diversity. What’s true about the positive impact of gender diversity on business performance is even more true for ethnic and racial diversity. According to a 2015 study by McKinsey, ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely "to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians,” and in the United States, a 10 percent increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team means a 0.8 percent earnings increase.
We need the perspectives
As the market for solar grows both domestically and globally, our customer base is becoming increasingly diverse. A diversity of perspectives inside the industry will not only help us engage new customers, but will also help us continue to adapt and innovate. Abundant research, including this 2011 Forbes study, shows that diverse perspectives foster innovation and improve decision-making.
We need the talent
According to the Solar Foundation, 77 percent of solar industry employers reported finding qualified employees to be somewhat or very difficult. With an industry growing at the rate ours is -- the solar industry expects to add more than 36,000 jobs by November 2015 -- we need to tap every available talent pool to fill open positions at every level, from installers to senior management. Women, for example, make up 67 percent of college graduates and 70 percent of valedictorians, but just 21.5 percent of the solar workforce. Diverse workforces are also happier workforces, reducing turnover.
We need a healthy economy
Perhaps most importantly, solar diversity supports a healthy national economy. Solar installer jobs offer a tremendous pathway into the middle class, offering living wages of $20-$24 an hour for workers who lack a college degree. A thriving middle class and its increased spending power is key to revitalizing struggling communities and strengthening our economy, which is good for everyone’s business.
Let’s make it happen
With RISE, we are committed to providing hands-on solar installation training to 4,000 individuals over the next two years, proving long-term career pathways for young people like Terrell while also connecting companies with trained individuals to fill the fast-growing demand for solar installers. But with an estimated 36,000 solar jobs coming on-line this year, the opportunity is much bigger, both for our industry and for cities where demand for good jobs far exceeds the number of job opportunities.
The solar industry’s diversity is growing, according to the National Solar Jobs Census. But we as an industry can do a lot more. At SunEdison, our mission is to transform lives through innovation, and we do so in part with best-in-class HR policies and mentoring programs, and by recruiting to create a company of people who innovate faster and more creatively thanks to our diversity and common purpose.
The Solar Energy Industries Association has also committed to make solar the most diverse energy sector, and is working with GRID Alternatives to host a solar job fair at Solar Power International this year.
We can learn a lot from one another about how to cultivate and maximize the talent pools available to us, both through direct programming and through community investment. Let’s take the long view on our success as an industry, and work together to make diversity and inclusion an integral part of the nation’s energy transition.
Join us in persuading your company to set new hiring and mentoring initiatives, and to help SEIA’s new Community Engagement Committee by submitting examples of your work. And as more people like Terrell see solar providing both green on their rooftops and green in their wallets, we’ll show that what’s good for solar is good for the nation.
Erica Mackie is the CEO of GRID Alternatives; Ahmad Chatila is the president and CEO of SunEdison.