In recent years, the U.S. solar industry has made significant progress in diversifying the workforce. But it would have only taken a glance across the expo floor at Solar Power International (SPI) this week to know that males, and white males in particular, have an outsized presence in the sector. 

The Solar Foundation’s National Solar Jobs Census for 2016 found there were more than 260,000 solar workers across the country in 2016. Of the 51,000 jobs added last year, women made up half.

That is a great achievement and should not be underappreciated. But while the industry has hired more women in recent years, they still make up only 28 percent of the total solar workforce. People of color are also underrepresented. Today, 17 percent of U.S. solar workers are Hispanic or Latino, 7 percent are African-American, 9 percent are Asian, and American Indian or Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian each account for less than 1 percent.

For comparison, women and people of color currently make up 47 percent and 34 percent of the broader American labor force, respectively.

A closer analysis reveals that there’s much more solar companies can do to build an inclusive workforce -- and that their businesses stand to benefit from it.

“A lot of groups in solar, including our own, really believe that it’s vital to increase the use of solar and solar compatible technology, and our vision is to make solar accessible to everyone -- and that means everyone,” said Andrea Luecke, president and executive director of The Solar Foundation, in a recent interview. “Diversity matters [because] if companies really want to break into new markets and expand and capture new consumer audiences, they really need to start looking and acting like the communities they want to serve.”

That’s where the Solar Foundation's new Solar Industry Diversity Study comes in. The first-of-its-kind study, released at SPI, examines current trends, best practices and recommendations related to fostering a more equitable solar workforce. Insights in the report are based on an online survey of 375 solar employers and 279 employees.

"None of the results are surprising, and many are disheartening, unfortunately,” Luecke said.

For one thing, the survey found that people of color are more likely to be represented at mid-level positions than at the manager, director and president (MDP) level. This difference is particularly notable for African-American respondents, only 18 percent of which hold MDP-level positions.

Women of color face the greatest discrepancy in promotion from mid-level positions to MDP-level positions. As a result, they face the lowest likelihood of earning top-tier wages. Thirty-six percent of white male respondents said they earn salaries of $75 or more per hour, compared to 28 percent of men of color and 21 percent of white women. Only 4 percent of women of color earn wages within that bracket.

FIGURE: Breakdown of Job Titles by Gender and Race

Furthermore, only 8 percent of African-Americans who responded to the survey said that they are “very satisfied” with their wage and position, and 42 percent indicated that they are “not at all satisfied.” For comparison, 52 percent of white respondents said that they are “very satisfied” with their wage and position, and only 6 percent of white respondents indicated that they are “not at all satisfied.”

In terms of career growth, only 8 percent of African-American respondents feel that they have successfully moved up the professional ladder, and 50 percent think they have not been successful in advancing their careers and feel stuck in their current positions.

These numbers are "not reflective of the kind of industry we want to build,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, the president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association, in her opening comments at SPI.

FIGURE: Career Ladder by Race

Another number that stood out to Ross Hopper is that only 14 percent of U.S. solar companies have a strategy in place to increase female representation, and just 7 percent have a strategy in place to increase the representation of people of color.

“It’s a pretty simple commitment for companies to make,” she said. “So I really encourage people to think seriously about how they’re doing business.”

“It’s the right thing to do...but even if you’re not convinced by that, every single study on this issue shows that a diverse workforce makes better decisions, earns more money and has more satisfied employee,” Ross Hopper added. “If that’s not a reason to address it, then I don’t know why you’re running your company.”

The Solar Foundation report highlights the evidence for this. For instance, the Peterson Institute for International Economics conducted a study last year of 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries that showed companies where woman filled at least a third of the executive positions enjoyed, on average, an extra 6 percent in profits. Other studies show that companies highly ranked for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have higher financial returns than their counterparts.

Having a diverse workforce can also enable companies to reach new markets, which is certainly an attractive factor for solar companies. According to HIP Investor Inc., companies that have a diverse workforce better understand the unique characteristics of their customers, and are better at building products and services for them, which has a direct impact on revenue. "In addition, employees from varied backgrounds can provide unique insights into the customer base with authentic reflections on cultural nuances, thereby giving companies a competitive edge,” the report states.

What’s more, having a diverse staff helps to attract and retain employees. In a survey conducted by the jobs website Glassdoor, 67 percent of respondents rated a diverse workforce as an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.

Julia Hamm, president and CEO of the Smart Electric Power Alliance, encouraged industry leaders to take an active role in making their companies more inclusive. The Solar Foundation report includes several recommendations, such as crafting a clear company statement on why diversity is important, workforce tracking and measurement, and networking opportunities for all employees.

“Our challenge to all of you is to go back and think about what it is you’re currently doing in your companies and what you could be doing to...make this industry as diverse as the people of this country and world that we aim to serve,” said Hamm.