Women power up in renewable energy careers

Dianne Anderson
By Dianne Anderson May 4th, 2018
For business

In America, 40 percent of females are single-family heads of household. Women, who still make 78 cents to every man’s dollar, could earn an equal wage by getting in on some of the fastest growing, well-paying jobs of the future.

Where are these jobs? The renewable energy industry.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that energy sectors employed roughly 6.4 million Americans, up nearly five percent, 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 sector leading the charge

In 2016, the solar industry added about 51,000 new jobs, half of which were filled by women. Women joining the industry as PV installers are earning equal pay for equal work; other entry-level solar jobs offer fast-tracks to more advanced positions, through a certification process that takes just five weeks to complete.

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Clean energy fields are placing more women in strong leadership roles, too. Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), said many of the association’s 1,000 partner-companies are consciously hiring more female engineers to establish a more balanced workforce.

The renewables industry, Ross Hopper asserts, values brains over brawn.

“Muscles are not the prerequisite,” she said. “Brains and work ethic are the prerequisites.”

Whether building large-scale solar arrays in the desert or hauling and installing residential rooftop panels, women are making their mark in the industry. There is always room for improvement, but Ross Hopper said women now represent 27 percent of the solar power workforce.

STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math, is an essential area of study that can help women establish careers in the renewable energy industry. With more women pursuing degrees in STEM studies, their influence in the industry is poised to grow.

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Ross Hopper agreed, saying, “A lot of our companies work with organizations that are trying to get more women involved in construction because women are really good at multitasking. They are a sought-after commodity.”

Different studies count solar jobs in different ways. For example, Ross Hopper said a recent Solar Foundation study count differs broadly from the popular employment numbers because it only counts hires that comprise at least half of their time on the job in solar. Regardless, the push to add more females to the solar workforce is evident.

Hope for the future

If all goes as expected, the government’s energy researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimate that renewables will supply most of America’s energy needs by 2050.

So far, some early hurdles facing fair access to solar careers have already been knocked down. Ross Hopper said it’s important to note that women are making headway in areas that not so long ago were considered for men only.

And because both male and female leaders are prioritizing diversity in the workforce, she knows the progress did not happen by accident.

“We need to have people with different experiences at the table, making decisions,” she said. “We need to recognize women have particular skills in these areas and they are beneficial to our companies. I’m proud of the progress we’re making, and hope to continue to make more.”

Opportunities in wind energy

Wind power jobs also are picking up speed with 102,000 employees nationally, representing an increase of 32 percent from 2016. Leading the way for women in wind energy today is Kristen Graf, who recalls what it was like getting exposure to the industry while studying for her engineering degree.

Now the executive director of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE) and a self-described math and science nerd, Graf loves being outdoors and working to preserve the environment.

“I became obsessed with wind turbines, solar panels before I even saw one in person. I went to college totally wide-eyed and unaware,” said Graf, who described her studies and future career as a natural choice.

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During her time as an undergraduate, Graf said social isolation was probably the toughest part of her college experience. Her engineering class was only 20 percent women, which was actually considered high at that time. These days, data suggests that STEM fields are graduating closer to 50 percent women.

Women helping women up the clean energy ladder

However, there are still strides to be made in the retention of female talent in the renewables industry. Young women, Graf said, enter renewable energy fields excited to be there, but often leave prematurely. She said keeping women in the industry’s jobs is just as important as getting them there in the first place.

“In college, I became active in the Society of Women Engineers, mainly because that’s where all the women are. I needed to talk to them,” Graf said.

Entry level wind technology jobs often require an electrical background coupled with physical skill, because of the height and complexity of turbines. Still, Graf feels women sometimes have the advantage, since their generally smaller frames can better navigate tight spaces.

“The women that I see out there love it, they’re great at it. Sometimes they’re even that much more comfortable getting up there and doing the work they have to do in those spaces,” she said.

For women looking for a little less intensity in the workplace, renewable industries are also ripe with many adjacent careers, including administrative, legal and financial opportunities.

WRISE is mainly wind-focused, but has expanded in recent years to broaden its scope to include new energy technologies, including solar and storage.

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Graf’s organization also sponsors fellowships that bring graduates to major national trade shows and conferences. In addition to covering transportation and lodging, the fellowships also give participants the chance to network with women in leadership roles across the renewable sectors.

Despite today’s challenges, Graf’s advice for women interested in green energy careers is to stay fearless. It may be an uphill battle, but many female leaders at the top are reaching back to help the next generation.

“Backbone, yes, but it’s a sense of your core self, [that] I’m here because I deserve to be here,” she said. “There are so many amazing women out there, and more women need to see them.”

 

Dianne Anderson covers education, health, and city government stories with an eye on legislative impacts to diverse communities. She has received awards from the American Cancer Society – Inland Empire, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, she has reported for the Long Beach Leader and the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and been a contributor to the Pasadena Weekly.