Diversity, Part III, in which Frank Andorka feels something like hope

Over the past three days, the talk of the show (beyond the obvious uncertainty surrounding the Section 201 trade case decision coming in 10 days) has been The Solar Foundation’s (TSF) Diversity Study (see Part I and Part II of our coverage). By and large, everyone agrees that the study revealed that, despite solar’s progressiveness in so many areas, diversity is one area where significant improvements can be made.

“We have a lot of work to do,” says Kristen Graf, president of Women of Renewable Industries and Sustainable Energy (WRISE). “Fortunately, there’s a lot of research to point us in the right direction and best practices from other industries that we can apply here.”

“Get focused and reflective, get the data, get your champions on board and get started,” Graf added. “There is great talent out there, and we owe it to them and what they can bring to this industry to get them involved as soon as we can.”
I won’t lie: Listening to Graf’s inspiring words reignited my belief that maybe this time – despite my past experiences – a diversity effort might succeed. But there was one person I knew I had to talk to to see what she was going to do to bring about change in the industry we all hold so dear. So I asked, and was fortunate enough to receive time with, Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), to discuss her thoughts on the subject.

“What surprised me the most was that we weren’t beyond this already,” Hopper said. “On the other hand, it gives us a great opportunity to do this and get it right.”

And solar is in an interesting position to lead, not just within the energy market but in the broader U.S. economy overall. After all, the U.S. solar industry produced one out of every 50 jobs in the United States last year, and 60% of the jobs don’t require anything more than a high school diploma. In an economy hemorrhaging those kinds of jobs, the solar industry would seem like a good source to refill the reservoir.

Hopper agrees – but says the industry clearly needs to do a better job of reaching out to non-traditional communities beyond what it’s done so far.

“If you’re not going to do anything differently, you’ll keep getting the same kind of candidates you’ve always gotten,” Hopper says. “We need to rethink the way we’re getting job applicants.”

But Hopper knows SEIA can’t just talk the talk – they must walk the walk. Which is why, when SEIA posts jobs, she won’t even start the interviews until she has a diverse candidate pool in front of her.

“As an industry, we need to create partnerships with non-traditional job recruitment avenues, whether it’s through partnerships with elementary and middle schools community colleges, technical schools – the scope is endless, and we’re continuing to investigate all the time,” Hopper said. “I’m sure there are avenues out there we haven’t even thought of yet, but I plan for us to find them.”

I asked if that could even mean a return to the days of placing ads in newspapers, church bulletins and other community resources rather than posting jobs only to Internet sites like Monster and Indeed. After all, some of the communities the solar industry is struggling to reach don’t have easy access to the web (hard to believe in this day and age, right?), meaning that a focus solely on the Internet leaves untapped a ripe, diverse applicant pool.

Hopper nods.

“I want SEIA to do a lot of the legwork so that I can go to CEOs of other companies and say, ‘Yeah, I had this problem, too, and here’s how we solved it,'” Hopper says. “It’s not just the right thing to do – it also effects the bottom line in a positive way.”

Widespread research, including TSF’s own study, bear out Hopper’s assertion. After all, people want to buy products from companies that reflect who they are, so a diverse workforce allows solar companies to reach communities they might not otherwise be able to access. And by reaching out to those communities, the positive experiences of solar will spread, interesting new people in the industry and bringing out new applicants.

“The beauty of an effort like this is that it can create its own virtuous cycle,” Andrea Luecke, president and CEO of TSF told me on Sunday when the study was released. “We have the chance here to do something special, and we have some dedicated people who I believe will make this happen.”

I won’t lie: The discussion I’ve heard around this study this week has been immensely encouraging, even to a jaded old reporter like me who, as I’ve mentioned, has heard these words before. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I for one am waiting to see results.

It would be good for this old cynic’s heart to see the solar industry succeed where so many other industries have failed. I wish us the best and stand ready to help in any way I can.