US solar builders urged to tackle gender gap before growth spike

Science scholarships, management programs and multi-skill teams are required to reduce the shortfall of women in US solar, industry experts said.

As the US solar industry tools up for rapid growth in the coming years, companies are placing an increasing focus on hiring women and other under-represented groups.

Women represented 30% of the 231,474 solar industry employees in 2020, far below the 52% of the total US labour force represented by women, according to the 2020 Solar Jobs Census published by Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) and U.S. Department of Labour statistics.

Male solar employees earn 26% more than women on average, IREC said in its 2019 US Solar Industry Diversity Study.

Solar installations must quadruple to around 60 GW/year by the middle of the decade to meet President Biden's carbon reduction targets and this could require 500,000 to 1,500,000 solar employees, according to estimates from the Department of Energy (DOE) and IREC.

   US deployment rates - decarbonisation scenario

                                 (Click image to enlarge)

Source: DOE's Solar Futures Study, September 2021.

The solar industry must step up the recruitment of women, people of color, and other diverse groups to address imbalances and expand and strengthen the workforce, Avery Palmer, communications director at IREC, told Reuters Events.

Earlier this month, the US Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA) launched an online program to help companies analyse workplace diversity and implement solutions. The DOE's Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) is also reviewing its workforce funding programs with a focus on  women and other under-represented groups.

On-the-ground action is needed now, ahead of the growth jump. Solar developers already face a general shortage of skilled workers and many are helping to fund scholarships and training schemes for women.

Investment in training providers is crucial to meet the looming demand, including labour unions, colleges and non-profit groups, Nicole Steele, senior advisor for energy justice and workforce at SETO, said.

“Solar job growth will quickly outpace the available workforce, requiring investments to expand the talent pipeline," Steele said.

Training drive

Solar developers are already finding it difficult to hire qualified workers such as electricians and construction workers, skills demanded by other growing industries.

Positions requiring a technical degree are also difficult to fill, in areas spanning from mechanical engineering and data science to finance and business, Steele said.

                                           US solar salaries vs other sectors

                                                              (Click image to enlarge)

Source: IREC's US National Solar Jobs Census 2020

Greater investment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects is required to attract more young people in general into these roles, Miguel Li Puma, head of people and organization at developer Enel North America, said. Enel invests educational programs for younger students, scholarships and worker retraining schemes.

More than 10,000 young women took part in various STEM and renewable energy education activities sponsored by Enel in 2019-2020, Li Puma said.

In August, supplier Nextracker and training group Solar Energy International (SEI) launched a three-year scholarship program for women. The program will fund tuition fees for science and technology programs and solar training programs.

Managers wanted

The greatest challenge has been finding women for manager and director roles within construction, project management and engineering, Aaron Chavez, HR business partner, Americas at developer Lightsource BP, said.

To improve diversity, Lightsource BP only partners with recruiting agencies with a proven record in this area and uses diversity job boards, particularly for roles where it is difficult to find more diverse candidates, Chavez said.

                                                  US solar jobs by state in 2020

Source: IREC's US National Solar Jobs Census 2020

Companies can use training programs that specifically prioritize gender equity, Palmer said.

For example, IREC helped to recruit a diverse workforce for a new solar plant in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico that includes women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, he said.

Some of these workers came from training programs focused on gender equality.

Clean energy companies must share the success of women already in clean energy to inspire others, and then support professional growth, Li Puma said.

Enel co-founded the Women's Energy Network in Boston, which helps women make connections and develop leadership skills through a range of workshops and events.

Following greater diversity efforts, Enel increased the number of new female hires in the US by 5% between January and September of this year. The company's female representation is currently at around 30%, in line with the industry average.

Multiple skills

Solar plant construction is spreading across the US, raising locational challenges.

There is an "enormous demand" for on-site workers and the shifting location and seasonality of the work can limit hiring options, Steele said. For larger projects, developers and construction groups often rotate teams from project to project to maximise productivity.

“This makes it a challenge to prepare workers for stable careers in a single region… Women are often caregivers…This may discourage women from taking a solar job that requires not being near home.”

A more diverse workforce will require comprehensive wrap-around services for transportation, housing, childcare, health benefits and mentorship, Steele noted. "Services like childcare and health care particularly help women close both employment and wage gaps."

Another solution to the location issue is to equip workers with a broader skill set across many clean energy sectors, she said.

Such a strategy could align with the increasingly diverse needs of solar developers and construction groups. Demand for energy storage is surging and rapid renewables growth will require an upscaling of grid interconnection and transmission expertise.

"We would like to get more vertically-integrated in the installation life cycle...Taking on scopes such as [medium voltage, high voltage], substation work and battery integration," Chris Dunbar, CEO of Blue Ridge Power, a new engineering and construction company created by developer Pine Gate Renewables, told Reuters Events earlier this year.

"The more control we have over the workforce and the different trades, the more efficient we can be with project execution,” he said.

Reporting by Beatrice Bedeschi

Editing by Robin Sayles