According to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census from The Solar Foundation, solar labor increased by 168% in the past 7 years, from about 93,000 jobs in 2010 to more than 250,000 jobs in 2017. Yet women in solar make up just 27% of the workforce. Women have a considerable opportunity to make careers in solar energy and join in on the highly skilled, well-paying solar jobs. C’mon, gals — join in!
In the US, women still make 78 cents to every man’s dollar. The gender disparity in wages could become more equalized if women select some of the fastest growing career paths within the renewable energy industry. Solar, specifically, is forecast to rise exponentially over the next decade. Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), says of women in solar, “Muscles are not the prerequisite. Brains and work ethic are the prerequisites.”
In 2017, the US Department of Energy reported that energy sectors employed roughly 6.4 million Americans, up nearly 5%, or 300,000 jobs, from the prior year. Electric power generation and fuels technologies comprised most hires at 1.9 million. Of those, about 374,000 hires work full- or part-time in the solar industry.
Solar power is one of the most promising renewable energy technologies, allowing the generation of electricity to be derived from free, inexhaustible sunlight. Many homeowners have already begun adopting solar electricity, large-scale power generation facilities have started to offer solar’s advantages to thousands of customers, and companies are turning to solar in quests to call upon 100% renewable power.
Overcoming Barriers and Creating Opportunities for Women in Solar
The solar industry offers long-term and challenging career opportunities for both men and women, although many gaps in fully embracing women in solar employment existed in the past decade. Many women exited the industry in search for more supportive career environments.
Early hurdles for women to gain fair access to solar careers are not as evident for this next generation of women with STEM aptitude, however. As with many male-dominated spaces, female objectification, constraints, and isolation are still found, but Hopper of SEIA said it’s important to note that women are making headway in many areas that not so long ago were considered for men only. Because both male and female leaders are prioritizing diversity in the workforce, she knows the progress did not happen by accident.
For example, The Atlantic describes how, with a “gender lens” approach to energy access programs, the millions of dollars flowing to initiatives around the globe can have a greater impact on women’s empowerment. Of course, access to technology and employment in the energy sector is only the beginning. Research indicates that women can gain optimal traction from employment in the energy sector only if there are wider socially progressive policies in place, including state intervention to create a robust social infrastructure and accessible, high-quality, public services.
A Toolkit For Solar Industry Labor
For an industry expanding at such a rapid clip and promising to transform the energy landscape, having a still male-dominated workforce means the solar industry is missing out on opportunities to expand and deepen its impacts across multiple sectors of society. But there are strategies to infuse gender differentiation into the solar workplace.
One text that helps is The Solar Workforce Development Toolkit, which fills in the clear need for solar businesses to engage with the broader industry and other workforce development stakeholders. It outlines ways to better align education with regional job markets, streamline training and hiring practices, and increase public awareness of diverse solar career opportunities. Employers interested in bringing in more women in solar and women who are considering a career in solar should review this toolkit.
Careers in solar include construction managers, industrial production managers, electricians, plumbers, steamfitters, pipefitters, sales reps, welding/ soldering/ brazing workers, solar voltaic installers, human resource managers, and marketers — among others. As an example of one of the many successful women in solar, Tanya Strickford grew up through the ranks of SunPower by Positive Energy Solar to COO, progressing from a field installer to crew lead, crew manager, and operations manager. Strickford wants to bring her peers to the industry by leading through example, showing women how they, too, can be building large-scale solar arrays in the desert or hauling and installing residential rooftop panels.
“I don’t think the power of this can be overestimated,” Strickford said, expanding upon the impact that role models have for women in solar. “Women applicants see themselves represented and likely feel more motivated and welcomed. As a company, we’ve hosted Women In Solar Energy (WISE) events to introduce women to the vast opportunities within the industry and show a familiar face. Positive Energy Solar has also had a strong commitment to our community, supporting STEM education throughout New Mexico and encouraging women to get involved.”
Seeing a Solar Installer Position through the Eyes of a Female
Kristin Underwood, co-owner of Planet Earth Solar, was working for the EPA when she realized she couldn’t work behind a desk for the rest of her life. She likes how solar allows her to be outdoors, be physical, and see what she has accomplished each day. She encourages companies to hire and mentor a diverse workforce that includes women in solar.
“Men and women come at problems differently, and, by having other viewpoints and perspectives, you give your company an advantage by having more solutions to all the challenges that can come up in a typical day,” she said. “But just hiring women is not enough. I would encourage company leaders to also look out for them and encourage and mentor them. This industry can be hard on women, so women in solar need both women and men to champion their success.”
So what is a typical series of job responsibilities for a woman who likes to be physically active in a job? For example, what does a solar installer do?
Solar installers design and develop solar panels based on customer preferences and building restrictions, paying close attention to details in order to install functioning panels. With the need to be knowledgeable about mechanical and electrical tools, newer (women?) installers will build the support structures, while (male?) veterans do more technical tasks such as connecting the panels to the electric systems.
The job of a solar installer has many components which speak to women’s skills, worldviews, and dispositions.
- Communicating with customers efficiently and comfortably is essential to relate the scope and length of a residential project.
- Having good problem-solving and decision-making skills leads to completing jobs on time and producing good customer reviews.
- Traveling to job sites, arriving on time, and establishing consistent work routines creates repeat business.
- Being strong and physically fit is a must, as panels can weigh up to fifty pounds — but there are lots of women with sturdy stature who can stand for long hours, climb up and down ladders, and keep their balance on roofs.
- Demonstrating detail-orientation, dependability, and knowledge is a constant cycle in solar installation. Once panels are installed, the workers check that systems are functioning properly prior to departure and return to perform routine maintenance.
Quality training of all employees — female and male — can save solar companies money. Additional site visits to correct residential installation errors may cost solar companies up to $7,500. Improved training procedures for both gender diversity and skills expansion could lead to a 1% decrease in the rate call-backs; it could save the solar industry more than $10 million per year.
Learning on Solar Worksites with Mentors
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, renewables will supply most US energy needs by 2050. There are many women leading the way for other women in solar, whether through traditional business routes or nonprofit, advocacy avenues like Women in Solar Energy. Sometimes it happens that one position leads to another, especially from within a company. That’s what happened to Ivy Gilbert, who worked as a business consultant when she was asked to help a solar start-up. Fast forward to today, and she’s CEO of IQ Power. Gilbert said it’s important for solar companies to allow female employees to explore new jobs and discover unknown passions and skills.
Gilbert remembered how a female marketer of solar products showed interest in transitioning to installation. “We immediately set her up for training with our installation and service department, where she went on installs and service calls until she was competent enough to handle service calls alone,” she said. “She enjoyed the work.”
STEM educational backgrounds and industries are viable and fulfilling paths these days for women to professional and personal development. “Solar is important work for the future,” Gilbert added, “and it feels good at the end of the day knowing your efforts are reducing the carbon footprint of our customers.”
Then there’s Kathy Miller, who co-founded Yes Solar Solutions. She prefers working in customer-owned solar because she gets to see the difference it makes in people’s lives and businesses. Miller tries to share that passion with her interns while giving them real-world experience in solar.
She advises companies to look past the gender and race/ ethnicity of applicants and to think about building a successful team first. “If I get a good resume, I interview that person, even if we have no openings.”
Shout-out to Solar Power World Online for featuring powerful women in solar in their recent issue.
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