Diversity in the Clean Energy Workforce: Overcoming the Challenge

By Linda Church Ciocci, Executive Director, Hydropower Foundation

Building diversity within the workforce in the clean energy industry is a significant challenge.

Today, two-thirds of the conventional hydropower workforce is male; 68% is predominately white. These statistics are far below the national average. Statistics for the marine energy industry fare no better. Workforce demographics for other renewable technology industries are quite similar.

Bottom line: we have a long way to go to bring more diversity, equity, and inclusion into the clean energy community.

The challenges raises a number of questions for the waterpower industry.

  • Whose responsibility is it to make progress toward equity and, most important, is our existing workforce ready for the change?
  • How do you attract people of color or underrepresented populations to your organization?
  • Equally and perhaps more importantly, how do you get them to stay?
  • Does diversity add to the bottom line of a company?

These questions were posed to a panel of experts during the recent national policy event Waterpower Week, owned and organized by the National Hydropower Association (NHA). The experts had much to offer in how their companies are trying to make a difference.

This article provides highlights of the insights shared by these experts:

Laura Vickers, Director of Culture, Diversity, and People Services, Avista Corp.
Harmon L. (Monty) Cooper, Counsel, Crowell and Moring
Allison Jubb, Human Resources Director, Snohomish County, Washington, Public Utility District

The complete discussion during the “Facing the Workforce Diversity Challenge” session can be viewed “on demand.” For details of how to access, contact NHA’s director of meetings and events Francesca Blanco, francesca@hydro.org.

Recruiting and Retention: Intentionality is the Ticket to Success

On recruitment, the experts shared that one of the most important elements for success is intentionality and the willingness to be flexible.

Not surprisingly, outreach to schools, trade schools, community colleges and professional organizations that serve the target populations was cited by all three as important and can play a role in helping to recruit.

However, most important, companies need to take a close look at the criteria developed for the positions they are trying to fill. Often, criteria unintentionally exclude the populations companies are trying to attract.

For example, one company mentioned that it traditionally had required a commercial driver’s license for a particular position. That seemed simple enough. But a deeper dive into why the company had not receive applicants from under-represented populations revealed that the costs involved in securing a commercial license was too high a hurdle since many within the targeted population are economically hard-pressed. When considering the fees for the required class to get the license, which generally costs thousands, and the time off required to take the class, which could be leave without pay, securing the commercial license became impossible for many. A seemingly benign requirement resulted in no-shows for the applicants the company was trying to attract. Advice? Take a hard look at your requirements.

Recruitment, though, is not the largest issue. Retention is a far larger problem. When recruits do not see themselves within an organization, or a way forward within the company, they tend to leave rather quickly.

Creating an environment where new recruits can reach out to others with the same experience and background is critical in making sure they feel comfortable in their new positions. That obviously presents a challenge for companies where diversity does not exist. Companies find themselves in catch 22 situations.

How do you get past it? Again, the advice is to focus on the intentionality of success.

Targeted outreach and creating programs where people of color, women, and other underrepresented populations can network within the company, share experiences, and support one another is important. Providing opportunity for advancement where individuals see people like themselves, whether ethnicity or gender, in key or senior positions is a major plus in keeping diversity within the workforce.

Individuals need to see that opportunity is provided for all and that equity within the workforce is a priority within the organization.

Mentoring programs are extremely important in helping recruits find their place and stay. Even more important is sponsoring these recruits. What’s the difference? Mentors offer advice and counsel as recruits meet the daily demands of their positions. Sponsoring involves supports new recruits in their upward mobility. The sponsor literally takes the recruit under his/her wings and helps map out the recruit’s future within the company in the same way they might have mapped out his/her own. Sponsorship programs have a huge impact on successful retention and longevity.

Training for the Future

Training is another aspect that can breed success.

Training management for the successful integration of a diverse workforce can help.

Network and training support for recruitment with an eye toward taking a hard look at job specifications, criteria and outreach efforts is helpful.

Creating training programs for increased opportunities with an eye toward equity can help recruits see a career pathway as well; and training is not just for new recruits. Offering training programs for the existing workforce with an eye toward acceptance of change within the workplace is critically important in keeping new recruits. Helping the existing workforce see the benefit of diverse opinions and how it improves the organizations, and their own performance, is key.

When asked about the role of human resource (HR) departments and who ultimately is responsible to change the statistics on workforce diversity, the experts agreed that making progress on this major challenge goes well beyond the HR department. It rests on everyone from the most senior managers down to the general workforce.

Everyone has a stake in supporting the open recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce. Making sure that these new recruits with diverse backgrounds feel at home and see opportunity falls on the entire organization.

Diversity Leads to Greater Productivity

The experts cited studies that show when you bring together a diverse workforce with different backgrounds, more innovation, energy, and ideas are poured into specific projects. Often, a team’s problem-solving process benefits from diverse opinions and “out of the box” thinking.

Of course, there are also challenges. Diverse opinions mean conflicts may arise. Managers have found that working through the conflict requires new challenges or conflict management skills.

If companies are willing to invest in this training, the innovative thinking that comes out of the process is well worth it.

In addition, industry customers have increased expectations to see more diversity and opportunities for people of color and women within the workforce. So, when companies make progress in this area, they often experience the added benefit of improved community or public opinion.

Examples of Progress

With more than 20 percent of the hydropower industry age 55 or older, there are plenty of opportunities to create a next-generation workforce that better reflects the general U.S. population. The key is intentionally working toward that end.

Many companies have created new positions that focus exclusively on bringing more diversity within the organization’s workforce, retaining that diversity, and providing more opportunity within the company. These programs are starting to make a difference.

In 2021, the Hydropower Foundation is working with Southern Company and GE Renewable Energy to host a “Think Tank” collegiate competition, with specific outreach to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the southeastern U.S. Students will work on teams and in consultation with industry to solve real-world problems. The competition will culminate at the new industry Clean Currents tradeshow + conference in Atlanta, Georgia, in October, where teams will make their final pitches and winners will be selected.

The objectives of the 2021 Think Tank are to:

  • Help students of color see a career opportunity with a solid future in waterpower.
  • Help the waterpower industry meet potential and well-qualified recruits of color.
  • Work with university professors to encourage them to offer new academic programs in waterpower to support the training of a well-prepared diverse future workforce.

While the 2021 program is not the first Think Tank the Foundation has organized, it is the first with a focus on HBCUs.

In general, the “Think Tank” program brings students together from several universities and colleges to focus on real-world problems, while working closely with industry. The concept behind the Hydro Foundation program is to introduce the students to waterpower with a goal to coax them toward a career within the industry. A byproduct is that students are exposed to potential employers and, in some cases, have been accepted in company internship and apprenticeship programs.

For more information on the Think Tank Program, the Foundation’s Hiring for Hydro program, and plans to further diversity within the waterpower workforce, contact Bree Mendlin at Bree @hydrofoundation.org.

What’s Next?

While today’s statistics on diversity within the waterpower workforce are grim, the future is bright. Opportunity for change exists, and what is more important is that programs and the willingness to seek change is growing.

We are headed in the right direction and, with time, this challenge, like so many within the waterpower community, will be overcome.