Welcome to the Workology Podcast, a podcast for the disruptive workplace leader. Join host Jessica Miller-Merrell, founder of Workology.com as she sits down and gets to the bottom of trends, tools, and case studies for the business leader, HR, and recruiting professional who is tired of the status quo. Now here’s Jessica with this episode of Workology.
Episode 313: Richard Lawrence, Program Director & Megan Howes, Program Manager at IREC
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:28.04] The solar industry is on a trajectory to reach 400,000 solar jobs by 2030, and employment will need to exceed over 900,000 workers by 2035 to reach the hundred percent clean electricity goal set by President Biden. I wanted to dive into an industry specific conversation about something like the renewable energy sector talking about recruiting, developing and training future workers in anticipation of its growth. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam. This episode is part of a podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, or ODEP. In November of 2020, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high growth, high demand jobs like those in the solar and renewable energy sector. In honor of Clean Energy Week, September 20th of this year, we’re talking with Richard Lawrence. He’s the program director for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, IREC. Richard has spent nearly two decades working in the clean energy space, most recently with IREC, managing projects like the Solar Ready Veterans Network and Solar Automated Permit Processing, Solar APP. Also joining us is Megan Howes. She’s the Program Manager at IREC. Richard and Megan, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Richard Lawrence: [00:02:29.48] Thanks, Jessica. It’s good to be here.
Megan Howes: [00:02:31.28] Thanks, Jessica. Thanks for having us on.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:02:33.50] Absolutely. Well, let’s go ahead and get started. I want, Richard, you start first, talk about your background and how you began in the clean energy space.
Richard Lawrence: [00:02:42.98] Sure. I got into clean energy through background environmental education, it was my, you know, area of study. I wanted to make an impact. I was very outdoors oriented as a, as a youth and went towards that as a profession while studying in grad school. I was exposed a lot to different solutions here, and clean energy just came up as something that really connected all of the dots in almost every issue that we were studying. You know, obviously, climate change was sort of the biggest all-encompassing problem that, that the world was facing and clean energy was front and center in solution to that, but also so many other topics from environmental justice and pollution, even water usage. And, you know, reducing that power plant consumption is tied into that lots of stuff tied into energy security and other things. So it was really, I thought, as a cross, you know, really affects everybody’s lives and goes across the political spectrum that everybody could get behind us. We see that, you know, certainly even today in the veterans we’re working with to connect them to jobs and industry. They really resonate with the messaging of energy, independence and security, or national security issues, a lot of economic development potential and job growth that this industry really presents. It’s, it’s just huge opportunity for, you know, doing good, but being able to have a business and make money at the same time. So that’s what really brought me to this, this sector.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:27.14] What about you, Megan? How did you get involved in the sector?
Megan Howes: [00:04:31.13] Sure. So I came to the renewable energy field with an academic background in environmental science and some professional experience in public affairs and communications in the nonprofit space. Fit in this role for almost four years, Richard and I were previously with the Solar Foundation and we’ve come to IREC through a recent merger. But I coordinated the Solar Foundation’s workforce development programming, most notably the Solar Training Network, which led efforts to improve alignment between industry needs and training outcomes to support a more diverse and job ready solar workforce. And this effort really laid the groundwork for much of our solar ready bets work that we’ll talk about today. And similar to what Richard said, my interest in renewable energy comes from the fact that the climate crisis will be a really defining challenge of our time, and I think that our rapid and equitable transition to renewable energy is not just important to avoid the worst climate impact. But also presents a really powerful opportunity to improve a lot of different economic and social dimensions of sustainable development in our communities.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:36.92] Talk to us about your role in program management as it relates to projects like the Solar Ready Veterans Network and the Solar Automated Permit Processing, or Solar APP.
Richard Lawrence: [00:05:49.04] Sure. So both of these projects that we’re working on are funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. They threw the Solar Energy Technologies Office, and so as a federal grant, it’s certainly lots of, you know, management requirements, oversight and following all of the regulations there. So, you know, we’ve got a, sort of a lot of program management aspects built into the system because of that. But it makes it, you know, really robust in tracking our metrics, making sure we’re meeting our milestones and moving forward. So regular reporting there, all that stuff. And you know, both of those with the Solar APP project is tied into working with communities and trying to get them updating their permitting processes to make solar energy more affordable and faster to install by eliminating some red tape there that they, you know, look at in terms of that review process, we’re automating that review process, making it more reliable, more and also faster and automatic. And so with the Solar Ready Veterans project, we’re coordinating with a number of different entities, another partner organizations that are doing different projects there. So we’re working with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, who looked a lot of certification aspects and making sure that those are streamlined for veterans working with the Solar Energy Industries Association to make sure we’re reaching out to all the solar companies that are out there and working with the Hiring Our Heroes program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who really connects us with veterans and transitioning service members and getting them connected into the industry. So that’s good partnerships there, and, you know, the management around that, obviously, the key piece that the IREC manages.
Megan Howes: [00:07:37.22] Like Richard said, like the Solar Ready Vets Network is centered around, you know, several highly collaborative and cross-functional objectives that are really designed to align veteran talent and skills with industry workforce needs as Solar continues to lead job growth in the energy sector. So a lot of our work is focused on building capacity across the industry for employers to tap into and really invest in veteran talent and to support veterans through training and employment opportunities, so. Generally speaking, our work entails a lot of, like, stakeholder engagement and working with diverse partners across industry and education and other intermediaries to integrate Solar into existing public workforce systems and just expanding awareness and opportunities around Solar career pathways.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:24.20] You know, when we first started talking, I, I do know about Solar. I wish that I had Solar on my house after going through kind of the snowpocalypse in Austin, where many people were without power earlier this year and until we started chatting and until that moment, I hadn’t really thought a lot of a career path and how you hire in and get people trained and just aware that this industry is a growing one and it is one that needs talent who have very specific skills and experiences. So I’m excited to, to hear more and, and hopefully the rest of us on the podcast here listening are excited to hear more about that as we move along. One of the other questions I wanted to ask you because this series is powered by PIA, the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeships, and I wanted to ask about how IREC works with PIA.
Richard Lawrence: [00:09:22.55] So we’ve just started really working together there with them on this project. They were able to connect with us. We had some previous colleagues who worked with us at the Solar Foundation, who are now involved with that project. And so, and recognizing that the veteran community has a large population of, you know, disabled people as part of it. So it is certainly something we’re integrating into the program and we’re just beginning to work together.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:09:50.09] Fantastic. You mentioned Hiring Our Heroes, so you talked about that program. I, you just mentioned it. I’d like to, to talk more about how you and your team work with programs like Hiring Our Heroes, maybe to specifically support those veterans, so can you talk with us a little bit more?
Richard Lawrence: [00:10:09.36] Yeah. And the Hiring Our Heroes program that we are connecting most with is their corporate fellowship program, which is actually a Department of Defense approved SkillBridge program. And what SkillBridge is is for active duty service members during their last 180 days of service, they’re able to participate in various training opportunities, career shadowing and other things to prepare them for a transition, you know, smooth transition into the civilian workforce. So the Hiring Our Heroes program, the corporate fellowship program, is a way that they work with employers to connect to this talent that’s transitioning out of the military, that everybody who participated in that program has a degree of some sort. They’ve got relevant experience from the military, particularly in leadership skills that are verified. And so we really in that one, connecting people to more mid and senior level positions, leadership positions, management positions within companies and operations, logistics, project management, those types of roles with that project. We also work with them to do more general hiring fairs. So they’ve got a big network of veterans that have transitioned out. And we work with SIA, the Solar Industry Association, to put together, you know, employers who are hiring. And we’ve got a number of really successful, you know, events that we’ve had in that regard to connect interested veterans looking for, you know, a new career pathway to understand what the solar industry is and the options that it makes available
Megan Howes: [00:11:51.12] The Hiring Our Heroes piece, like Richard mentioned, service members have lots of highly valuable and transferable skills, but we recognize that a lot of them may not have solar specific experience that the industry is looking for. So to kind of bridge that gap, we offer what we call a Solar 101 curriculum to our incoming fellows dimensions of the industry just to get them up to speed as they’re learning the solar ropes with their host company so they’re ready to excel in a permanent solar role at the end of the 12 weeks. And then we are working with SIA on, you know, connecting employers to veterans for trade and technical roles, which is where a lot of the demand in the industry is focused. And so we’re connecting employers to SkillBridge training programs for service members and vets who are learning construction and electrical skills so that solar companies can hire qualified veteran talent. So we have partnerships in place with like the Home Builders Institute military program, Airstreams Renewables, other one, so that employers can connect directly with vets as they’re graduating from those programs. We’re also working with adaptive construction solutions to get solar employers plugged into their utility scale apprenticeship program. And I guess just more generally, our work entails a lot of just stakeholder engagement and working with diverse partners just to get those groups talking to each other and connect those dots in a more deliberate way.
Richard Lawrence: [00:13:13.47] Yeah. And adding one of the key aspects of this project, the Solar Events Network, is to really leverage a lot of the other resources that are out there, particularly for veterans, support services, organizations and other activities around that. You know, there’s a lot of funding, a lot of resources, a lot of activity that occurs in that space. And what we’re really trying to do is make sure that the solar industry is connected into that. There’s, you know, the industry is growing through a rapid growth phase. There’s a huge demand for talent all across the spectrum and all different, you know, job levels and abilities and from entry level installation and sales roles all the way up through large construction projects, major finance deals, software development and engineering. I mean, it’s all, all across the board in terms of the roles. And so, you know, we want to make sure that the solar industry knows how to connect with that, you know, that, that community that’s out there to support veterans getting into these jobs and make sure that, you know, that dialogue is happening, that there’s a, you know, we’re taking advantage of all those resources and, you know, organizations that are out there supporting this and making sure that our industry is connecting with that.
Break: [00:14:26.97] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you were listening to the Workology Podcast. We’re talking about apprenticeships and talent growth and development in the solar and renewable energy space, and I’m talking with Richard Lawrence and Megan Howes. This podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam, but this series on apprenticeships is powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA.
Break: [00:14:54.86] This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of a new podcast series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship, or PIA. PIA is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, ODEP. In November, ODEP launched PIA to ensure all apprenticeship programs are inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities. PIA collaborates with employers and apprenticeship programs to help meet employer talent needs and enable people with disabilities to benefit from apprenticeships that increase their opportunities for lifelong access to high growth, high demand jobs.
The Future of Work: Renewable Energy
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:15:32.90] I love the, the focus here in the United Industry Front, where you’re working very hard to, to reach different groups of individuals like veterans and military to give them an opportunity and an option to transition into roles in the clean energy sector in the solar sector. I think that’s fantastic. I wanted to talk about how you’re reaching these veterans and engaging them with apprenticeship programs designed to train those apprentices on the technology like solar energy.
Richard Lawrence: [00:16:11.16] Yeah, and particularly with the apprenticeship’s aspect of this work, so we recognize that, one, first of all, apprenticeships are a great vehicle for veterans to be engaged with any industry out there. There’s great incentives that go directly to the veteran in terms of housing stipends if they’re able to access those still through the GI Bill funds that they may have. And also a bunch of different tax credits and stuff that are available to the employers who are hiring those apprentices and trying to build their, their workforce there. But we’ve noticed that certainly in the solar industry, there’s actually relatively few apprenticeship opportunities that currently exist. So we’ve got a pathway both to develop new programs. So we’re working with the industry to create new apprenticeship options for solar specific occupations. But we’re also connecting to opportunities that are more traditional, like an electrician apprentice. There’s a huge demand for electricians, licensed electricians in the industry. It’s one of the most critical shortages that’s holding back the development of projects. And, so getting more people into those existing, sort of long standing electrician programs and also getting more solar companies to participate in those existing electrician programs is something that we’re also working to do. Make sure that, you know, there’s, there’s a pathway there for not just veterans, but really workforce development in general. The industry is growing fast. They need new tools to do that, and this is one that they haven’t been using very much. So we’re trying to, you know, there is a lot of excitement. We’re working with a lot of different companies, both national scope that operate multiple states all across the country and, you know, local and regional developers and installation firms that are also growing rapidly as well.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:05.67] Megan, could you talk a little bit about the outreach and how that works in terms of engaging veterans and letting them know about these apprenticeship and training programs?
Megan Howes: [00:18:16.17] Yeah, yeah, sure. So we have what we call the Solar Ready Vets Network, which we encourage veterans and employers to join, and that’s how we stay in touch with both of those constituencies. And so we do several events every year. We have hiring fairs, we do virtual networking and mentorship events where we help, you know, veterans who are interested in solar careers connect with employers and connect with other veterans in the industry. We do pretty regular webinars for employers, for the training community, for veterans, and so a lot of that happens through the network and so definitely would encourage any employers or any vets who are interested in solar opportunities to sign up and stay current on all of those different resources.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:18:58.17] I wanted to talk about the what the requirements are for someone. So if someone is like, this sounds great, I’m interested in being trained and becoming a certified solar professional. What how does that work and what are the opportunities in this industry specifically for veterans? I’d love to know more.
Richard Lawrence: [00:19:17.15] Yeah, there’s really opportunities across the spectrum of job classifications within the industry. The, there’s, certainly the biggest need is in more of the installation side of things. So those craft professions, electrical, construction, carpentry, all of those trades. There’s, there’s a lot of demand for that, actually. You know, that boots on the ground and we see that utility scale big, huge projects developed on acres and acres of land. And also, you know, residential and commercial rooftops, where there’s companies that focus on that too. So there’s huge demand there for that installation labor, but also the people that are involved in the sales and the development of those projects to get them in place. So big entry point is, is sales positions where you’re working to get new customers on board, or development where you’re working to secure land leases and contracts and going through permitting reviews and all of that. There’s a manufacturing component in, of the industry. There’s a number of manufacturers both sort of wrapping components, the batteries, the solar panels themselves, and with that logistics and distribution. So there’s companies that work in more of like a warehouse wholesale type of thing, distributing those materials out to modules.
Richard Lawrence: [00:20:41.92] You see a lot of, you know, skills in the military there certainly around that, and then growing sectors in, certainly, finance and in software development, cybersecurity. So there’s a lot of jobs in, in that area as well. Lots of companies that are really growing, getting investments at this point right now in the industry are more like a software side of things. They’re developing the tools that are going to help move this industry forward. And, and there’s tons of, you know, job openings for software engineers and and those types of positions as well. One of the partner projects that was funded by the Department of Energy at the same time, this one is also called Cyber Guardians, run by the SunSpec Alliance, and they’re working to train people to get into that cybersecurity realm and protect, you know, these are integrated assets, power plants that are on the grid and that’s, you know, vulnerable to potential cyber attacks. And so there’s a lot of effort in that regard right now happening and definitely encourage people to check out the Cyber Guardians program to.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:47.96] OK.
Megan Howes: [00:21:48.20] It might also be worth just mentioning one of our partner organizations, NABCEP, North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners, offers industry certifications and credentials that are extremely valuable in terms of career advancement and your earning potential, but not, you know, typically required for getting your foot in the door with an entry level job. And so, you know, this is a really dynamic and rapidly evolving industry. And so like a lot of fields, just keeping on top of changes and continuing education really makes the difference between a solar job and a solar career. And also just wanted to note that IREC has several career maps for different sectors in the renewable energy space. These are like interactive tools that demonstrate various avenues of advancement that an individual could take over the course of their career. So each point on the map is set up like a grid in each point displays information about a particular job. So like the experience needed, the relevant skill sets, the typical pay that you can expect once you have that job where you could go from there. And it just demonstrates that like any field, broader opportunities and higher pay come with experience, and it allows you to visualize how you can turn an entry level job into a pretty powerful career. And just wanted to reiterate that like what Richard said, one thing that we’re trying to convey through program is that solar is not just hard hats on a roof. While there is great demand across the industry for skilled trades and technical talent, there are opportunities for just about every kind of skill and interest and depending on your goals, like there’s a solar job for you. Earlier we were talking about opportunities for folks with disabilities, and absolutely there’s a place for everyone in solar. There’s so many different kinds of opportunities in the industry. Some, for sure, are in the field, but a lot can be office based or even done from home. And given the past year we’ve had of remote work, that’s likely to become even more true.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:23:47.23] As, as you’re talking I’m just thinking about this market, this industry, the need for solar is exploding, and there’s, it’s an exciting time for, for people to get into the solar industry as entrepreneurs, as business owners, as employees. So you can, sounds like it can be a really great career opportunity for so many. I wanted to ask you about. Clean energy, so can you talk to us about clean energy priorities and what that means?
Richard Lawrence: [00:24:22.80] So IREC has a mission to expand clean energy. What clean energy is, is, is broad spectrum there too, is not just solar. Now we’ve been talking a lot about solar in terms, because that’s where our funding for these projects come from with the Solar Energy Technologies Office. And we’re seeing obviously explosive growth in solar, but also other clean energy technologies like wind power and energy efficiency, just using energy more wisely. There’s a whole sector in the transportation field now with electrification of vehicles. And so, it’s clean energy, both at the large scale sort of power plants size where wind and solar or, you know, for the last several years have been the leading sources of energy being built onto the grid today, more than any other source out there. Renewable energy is having an increasing impact on the electricity grid. As we’re doing this energy transition away. It involves all sectors of the economy and all scales. I mean, we have, you know, you have solar powered calculators and watches, right? But you also can power other devices like streetlights, expand that up to obviously your house. You can power now, you’re adding your car to that load as well by plugging in an electric car. So again, you can create that own power right in your own home and and meet all your needs.
Richard Lawrence: [00:25:56.13] Lots of attention right now to backup power and battery systems that can help with that. As we’re seeing, you know, electricity shutdowns across different states, California because of wildfire threats. Other areas, you know, due to natural disasters and such. Being able to have that energy reliance and make your own power at home, have your battery to store it up and soon being even able to store that power in your, in your car that you produced from your, your array on your roof. With some of the new technology that’s coming out to integrate all of these things together, we get involved in a lot of regulatory work to help states to implement these clean energy policies and how to integrate more clean energy onto the grid. We do obviously a lot of this workforce development work and, and there’s, you know, all kinds of work beyond that. In the business side of things, there’s hundreds of companies involved in in all aspects of this. So the transitions here and there’s tons of opportunities to get involved and you can feel good about what you’re doing in your job every day.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:05.34] The most recent National Solar Job Census was published in Spring of 2021 as a collaborative, collaborative effort between Solar Energy Industries Association, the Solar Foundation and IREC. We’re going to include a link to the full report in the show notes of this Workology Podcast episode, but I wanted to ask if you could talk a little bit about the trends that you’ve seen in the past few years.
Richard Lawrence: [00:27:27.51] Well, the last few years have actually been interesting in that there has been almost a little bit of an up and down, obviously, recently it’s been from COVID. During 2020, there was a, there was a shedding of jobs and I think that affected sort of every industry out there. And solar was certainly one of them. But many states did make sure that that construction, those construction jobs, particularly those clean energy construction jobs, were considered essential workers and many places were able to continue that. We’re seeing a big bounce back now. Previously, we also over the years, there’s been some declines and the uncertainty, I guess I’d say, in in the incentives. So, last couple of years, it’s been actually a little bit leveling out or a little up and down. But the, you know, the overall growth trajectory in the past and certainly going forward with the current administration policies and really the price competitiveness of solar, it’s now it’s the business case to do. So you see large companies moving towards renewable energy over and over. You see massive amounts of capital investment by large investment banks, putting energy into all of these different companies, both software and capital projects.
Richard Lawrence: [00:28:53.13] We see it coming into the infrastructure bill. We see it into the priorities from local governments, up through state governments and the federal government to set clean energy standards and really address climate change. So the growth going forward is, again, that solar is the cheapest form of electricity in many, many places right now. There’s a business case for it. It’s growing very quickly and we see upwards of, you know, four times the number of jobs in the industry today, existing ten years from now, in the next decade, in order to meet those goals that we have at the those federal and state levels. So just huge growth. And this gets to what Megan said earlier about rapid career advancement. Sometimes when people are transitioning into a new industry, they may need to start out in, you know, a lower level position that they may currently have in their existing job. But this industry is going so fast that we see people moving into those positions and very quickly moving up, you know, within a matter of, you know, months, really, you know, moving into more responsible positions, higher paying jobs, once you get a little bit of experience, you can grow really quickly.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:30:04.08] Megan, do you have anything you want to add here?
Megan Howes: [00:30:06.34] Yeah, I guess one other thing just to mention here is the industry is becoming much more diverse. I mean, as you would probably guess, the solar industry has historically been predominantly white and male, but this is changing very quickly as the industry is evolving. Just to highlight a few numbers from our most recent solar job census, I think women make up about a third of the solar workforce overall, which is substantially higher than the construction industry over 2020, like despite the pandemic, almost all demographic measures of diversity in the solar workforce saw increases. One thing that we like to note, which demonstrates the value of our work under Solar Ready Vets, is that veterans make up about nine percent of the solar workforce, which is actually like significantly higher than veteran employment and the overall economy. And like, despite this progress, like the industry certainly recognizes its shortcomings in terms of workforce diversity and equitably affording opportunities overall. And many employers are making really deliberate steps to recruit people who have traditionally been underrepresented in the industry.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:13.05] Megan and Richard, thank you so much for being on the Workology Podcast today. Where can people go to learn more about you and IREC and the work that you’re doing?
Richard Lawrence: [00:31:23.04] Yeah, so IREC’s website is IRECUSA.org. That’s IRECUSA.org, and you can get information both about Solar APP, about our Solar Ready Veterans project there, our career maps, also the Solar Job Census, all of that information and also our regulatory work and other aspects like that that they might want to look at.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:47.19] Amazing. We’ll link to all the amazing resources and that National Solar Job Census because as I’m looking at over, it is fascinating and I love learning more about different industries. So I really appreciate you two taking the time to chat with us today.
Richard Lawrence: [00:32:03.72] Thank you so much. There’s so much opportunity within the industry. We just want everybody out there to know about it. And you know, again, different pathways for anybody’s skill sets that are out there. Lots of opportunities so we look forward to hearing from you.
Megan Howes: [00:32:20.20] Yeah, thanks, Jessica, we definitely appreciate the opportunity to share about our work here.
Closing: [00:32:25.18] I love this sector and industry focus, I had no idea the growth, I mean, I knew it was growing, but now I really understand the growth and it’s so fascinating to me and amazing to see how an entire sector is partnering together to staff up to train up and in anticipation of that future need. This is such an interesting area to focus on in apprenticeships, especially for veterans and other underemployed groups who are interested in a path of learning and certification in that renewable energy sector. I appreciate Richard and Megan for sharing their expertise with us today on the podcast. A special thank you to PIA, who powers this apprenticeship focused series on the Workology Podcast and a special thank you to our Workology Podcast sponsors, Ace the HR Exam and Upskill HR.
Closing: [00:33:19.31] Personal and professional development is essential for successful HR leaders. Join Upskill HR to access live training, community, and over one hundred on demand courses for the dynamic leader. HR recert credits available. Visit UpskillHR.com For more.
Closing: [00:33:35.18] This podcast is for the disruptive workplace leader who’s tired of the status quo. My name is Jessica Miller-Merrell, and until next time you can visit Workology.com to listen to all our Workology Podcast episodes.
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