Is a diverse workforce the way forward for solar?

Experts have long noted that a diverse workforce tends to capture new markets. Can this be the case for solar?

The Solar Foundation’s 2017 U.S. Solar Industry Diversity Study recently released, causing a stir among solar workers and employers alike. Among the most interesting trends noted in the report is that solar is becoming a much more diverse field.

The percentage of female solar workers has risen four points from 24 percent in 2015 to 28 percent today. A third of the workforce identifies as nonwhite, on par with some of the most racially diverse industries.

That makes solar potentially more inclusive than the oil and gas industries, where women comprise just 14 percent of board members in the 200 leading global utilities. An analysis of LinkedIn profiles found that just 26.7 percent of oil and gas profiles were women.

Official industry research reveals an even bleaker breakdown: women make up a mere 19 percent of all employees. That means conventional energy has a worse employment gap than the tech field.

Meanwhile, a 2014 diversity report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute suggests that African Americans account for just 8.2 percent of the industry’s workforce, with Hispanic workers making up about 15.7 percent. By contrast, the healthcare field, which has a proportionally higher showing of workplace diversity, is about 33 percent nonwhite.

So those numbers are startling, indeed.

Given those statistics, it’s safe to say the energy sector has a hiring problem. And that issue could be detrimental in more ways than one.

Experts have long noted that diverse workplaces tend to capture new shares of the market. Companies with a higher proportion of diversity in their leadership team see more equal contributions across gender, race and sexual orientation.

Organizations that lack diverse leadership, on the other hand, are over 20 percent less likely to endorse ideas from women, people of color, or LGBT employees. That’s unfortunate since these workers are often aware of markets and ideas that might not be visible to other groups.

Women installing rooftop solar for GridAlternatives ( Grid Alternatives)

It’s just common sense that a workplace with a diverse range of perspectives, backgrounds, and identities makes for unique problem solving and product development. And luckily, the corporate world is beginning to recognize that.

In a recent Forbes survey of 300 senior executives, over 80 percent agreed that diversity was a key driver of innovation. And the energy industry has at least made some tentative steps to resolve its diversity issues.

For instance, ExxonMobil now features an “Introduce a Girl to Engineering” program, designed to steer girls towards STEM careers.

It is notable that this focus on diversity is occurring now, at a time when the energy industry is desperately trying to navigate the shifting landscape of power generation. As the makeup of the sector moves to a more distributed breakdown of utilities, solar providers and individual generation sites, the changing technology warrants a revision of the tools and resources we use to power our homes.

As alternative energy grows in popularity, utilities and utility commissions will face many challenges to their position as a public service and an influencer of policy. And they’re going to have to learn how to provide reliable electricity across a distributed network—and possibly have a second look at their public relations, as well.

And as it stands, none of that can happen without giving some serious thought into their company diversity policies.

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