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 335: Meaningful Work With Amanda Bybee, CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:00:24.87] This episode of the Workology Podcast is part of a 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, or ODEP. Pierre 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. Today, we are joined by Amanda Bybee, CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative. Amanda has worked in the solar industry since 2003, and over the course of her career, she has helped launch several cooperatives, including employee-owned cooperative Namasté Solar, purchasing cooperative Amicus Solar, financial cooperative Clean Energy Credit Union and shared-services cooperative Amicus O&M Cooperative. In recent years, she has contributed time and energy to several passion projects, including a Women’s Speakers Bureau with WRISE, an informational website on how to recycle solar equipment at www.SolarRecycle.org, and an industry coalition on diversity, equity, and inclusion called Renewables Forward. Amanda, welcome to the Workology Podcast.
Amanda Bybee: [00:01:47.79] Thank you so much for having me.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:49.59] That is quite the introduction. You are busy busy.
Amanda Bybee: [00:01:53.16] It has been a busy year.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:01:55.23] Talk to me about your background and how you began working in the solar and clean energy space.
Amanda Bybee: [00:02:00.45] Well, when I graduated from college with my handy dandy liberal arts degree, I asked myself what I wanted to really do with that and I am a person that needs to feel that my work is meaningful in the sense that it is solving some kind of a problem. And so I asked myself if I, if I was going to line up all the issues facing the world today in order like a domino chain, what are the first few dominoes that underlie every other problem that we see in the world? And in my infinite 21-year-old wisdom, my answers at the time were education and energy. And for me, I’m really passionate about education because I do, I really do believe that that is one of those meta-issues that affects everything else in our, in our world. But I also saw that from a selfish perspective, it was going to take me probably 20 years of working my way up through the chain of command and through the different positions to really be able to have the type of effect I would want to have on education. Because it was less for me about being a teacher and more about really looking at the system of it.
Amanda Bybee: [00:03:18.98] And so I felt like with energy, I could leapfrog my way into working on the types of issues within energy that matter the most to me. And that is the environmental impact of energy, the access to energy that enables education around the world. And so I got, my very first job was with a non-profit organization called Public Citizen, which is a pretty large and well-established consumer advocacy group. But it’s Austin Satellite Office focused on energy and the environment. And there I had the opportunity to run the Solar Austin campaign, which was a citizen-led effort to really try to nudge the City of Austin and its municipally-owned utility into a bigger use of renewable energy. So I got into it from a desire to really work on the issues that matter so much to me and that honestly still drive my sense of urgency here today with watching the climate crisis unfold in real time around us.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:04:28.85] I love how specific you were at 21 years old on your mission and what exactly you needed to do. I myself also have a liberal arts degree, so I, I understand how it kind of causes more questions than, than provides answers. What was it like to be a woman entering into the clean energy space at the time?
Amanda Bybee: [00:04:50.42] Well, it was a little lonely. There are certainly have been no shortage of times in my career where I was the only woman in the room. And so I think part of, there was either a, I don’t remember if it was an explicit understanding or if it just became a part of my MO, but I just understood that if I was going to be in this world that I would need to be comfortable working with men and working with a lot of them. And you know, my whole life, I’ve always, I’ve always had strong friendships with men. And so I think that has served me well because there was never this like awkwardness or this charge around being the only woman in the room because I’ve long considered myself one of the guys. Although, it’s interesting that I find that there is a certain magnetism among the women in the industry, that we do tend to band together out of that sense of scarcity and out of a desire to build more camaraderie among the women in the industry. And I would say that today I have more strong relationships with women in solar than I’ve ever had at any point in my life.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:05:59.96] I love that. What a, what a wonderful story too, and I love all the work that you’re doing. We talked about it in the intro, like, you’re, you’re making an impact with your women speakers bureau and, and so many different things. Before we dive into those other areas, I wanted to ask what your primary goal is in your current role at Amicus O&M Cooperative?
Amanda Bybee: [00:06:21.71] The Amicus O&M Cooperative was founded in 2016 with the help of a Department of Energy Sunshot Initiative grant. And in 2016, it felt very true that operations and maintenance is still very much the wild west of the solar industry. A lot of attention has been paid to solar project development, to solar installation, to, you know, all the other parts of sales and design and marketing that go into the solar industry. But a lot of, a lot of those roles tend to forget that solar is in fact not a maintenance-free technology. It does need maintenance from time to time, and that is what our member companies do is they perform the field services that enable our systems to keep running over the long term for that promised 20+ year lifespan. So the goal of the O&M Cooperative was to try to bring more standardization and consistency to this work so that all of our member companies are approaching it in a similar fashion. Our software system helps our technicians walk through the same scopes of work on sites that they go out to. The reports that customers see are similar to each other so that if you have a client that’s working with multiple companies, they get used to seeing the same type of report. We do a lot of knowledge sharing within the cooperative. That’s a fundamental part of who we are and what we do is: helping each other be ever more efficient, helping each other solve problems, and helping each other perform work. So I would say those are some of the big key things that the, the O&M Cooperative is aiming to help our member companies with is always being more efficient, always being more profitable, supporting them as they grow their workforce and helping them also grow revenue to the extent that we’re able to direct their direction.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:08:26.39] I mentioned Renewables Forward in the intro, can you tell us about the coalition and its DEIA mission and goals, especially within a niche industry like solar and clean energy?
Amanda Bybee: [00:08:37.28] Renewables Forward is intended to pull in members from all over the renewable energy industries. Its root is really in the solar industry, but our intention is very much to continue expanding that over time. And the mission of renewables forward recognizes that our diversity issue is not simply a hiring problem, but also an issue of education access, political voice, environmental impact, community protection and sustainability. Further, we can’t commit to building a more resilient, efficient, sustainable and affordable future without also addressing the inequities of the past and proactively building solutions that elevate opportunity for all of us. And so with that, renewables forward has identified several focus areas to encourage our industry to do a better job of assessing diversity and inclusion and creating data and metrics that we can look to to gauge our progress. We are developing and sharing corporate policies and resources. We are helping create a more, a pipeline of diverse candidates for our companies to hire, and we’re looking at how we invest in under-resourced communities. And so it’s, I feel like a lot of these types of efforts pertain to all companies in all industries, at all walks of life. We all have a lot more work to do and the solar industry in particular, we know from at least some cursory demographic surveys that we’re not even on par with the population. But further than that, I just think that there’s, that’s from an employment perspective, right? That we had a minimum should strive to reflect the demographic population makeup of the United States. But I think the other aspect of that is really about who are, who is getting to benefit from the deployment of renewable energy? So it’s, it’s employment and it’s deployment, and we need to look hard at both sides of that to ensure that the benefits of clean energy affect all parts of our society in equal measure or if it’s going to be unequal measure that we’re, we’re striving to help people who need it more in a greater measure.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:11:00.73] I wanted to ask you also, how do you and your team work with programs like PIA that supports inclusive apprenticeship programs?
Amanda Bybee: [00:11:10.70] Well, our relationship with PIA is, is just kicking off, really, but I think that some of the early promise of how we can all work together is first and foremost in educating companies about how they can conduct themselves to be more accessible. And that’s everything from how we present information on the internet so that it’s accessible to the different types of software that, you know, read text off the page, or if it’s about ensuring that the amenities at our offices and at our job sites are accommodating to people of all abilities, there are lots of ways that our companies need to just first and foremost, learn and be made aware of those ways in which they had inadvertently been inaccessible. And I think that the focus for 2022 is going to be really in helping those member companies of Renewables Forward take a good hard look at themselves and to start to make changes that result in measurable impacts within their own companies. And once we feel like we’ve made that kind of traction, my hope is that we can also turn our sights to, like, industry-level applications that broaden access in a lot of other ways. But I think starting with education is probably one of the first ways that we go about that. And then secondarily, it’s, you know, implementing what we’ve learned with new policies, new accommodations and getting creative with how we advertise our job opportunities within the community of people with disabilities. And some of the companies that I’m in league with have had great success with this. Others of them are, are sort of newer to the table. And so we try really hard to welcome everybody to that table and say: Look, wherever you’re at in your journey, join us now and let’s build from here. We try not to be, harbor too much about the past, and we just focus on where we are today and where we can be tomorrow.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:13:20.83] I love all this, Amanda. You know, I feel like you’re such a trailblazer in this space and you’re taking the approach of educator and sharing best practices and resources. So the work that you’re doing is helping so many other people and the industry, too.
Break: [00:13:37.18] Let’s take a reset. This is Jessica Miller-Merrell and you were listening to the Workology Podcast. Today we are talking with Amanda Bybee. She’s the CEO of Amicus O&M Cooperative. This podcast is part of a series powered by the Partnership on Inclusive Apprenticeship or PIA. The Workology Podcast is sponsored by Upskill HR and Ace the HR Exam.
Break: [00:14:00.27] 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. 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.
Apprenticeships and Renewables Forward
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:14:38.78] We were talking before about Renewables Forward and how you were working to bring new faces into the industry. Can you tell us about how apprenticeships and other career development pathways are working in the solar industry, specifically in construction versus non-construction roles?
Amanda Bybee: [00:14:57.14] So, I see a lot of opportunity for us to, to bring this lens of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access throughout every level of an organization. There are a great many outstanding individuals with lots of experience under their belt who are equipped to come in in leadership roles in our organizations. They may not necessarily have come up in solar or clean energy, but we’re at a point in our growth as an industry that we need to welcome people from all walks of life and all backgrounds, all, all professional backgrounds because they are bringing transferable skills into an industry that have native everything. And so when I think about that, I think about management and leadership, I think about sales, I think about marketing, finance, accounting, design, engineering. You knoe, there are a lot of desk jobs that we’ve got to fill. The industry currently stands at about 230,000 individuals in the United States that work in the solar industry in particular, and we need to quadruple or quintuple that in the next 10 to 15 years if we’re going to save the planet and meet our zero, our net-zero goals. And so in my mind, this is an all hands on deck, all positions in all companies. We have an opportunity to expand that tent.
Amanda Bybee: [00:16:28.11] When I think specifically about apprenticeships, I think that that term is more commonly used with more like entry-level roles or people who are coming in to learn a new trade. And so certainly that is very specific to the construction type roles that whether or not they are, quote, unquote, officially apprenticeable, according to the Department of Labor, is still somewhat up in the air, I believe, but many of our companies take an apprenticeship oriented mindset to training. When you hire in a new solar installer or a new solar O&M technician, we bring them in with the intention of training, helping them be very safe at what we’re doing, helping them learn how to do quality workmanship, and to see that they have a future here and a professional development career path. So really, I feel like the opportunity is wide open right now for both construction and non-construction jobs, and for people from almost every discipline across the board that we’re going to need as we continue growing this industry to meet the demands of the day.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:17:39.78] Can you talk a little bit about the trends you’ve seen in solar and clean energy as work opportunities the past few years?
Amanda Bybee: [00:17:47.64] You know, over the course of my career in solar, which is coming up on 19 years here, one very consistent theme has been growth. The industry has been on this hockey stick growth curve since I joined it, and that is not stopping. And if anything, it feels like it’s accelerating in some degree driven by this, not newfound sense of urgency, but broader sense of urgency. Because like I said for me that, the concern about the climate crisis for me has always been there, that’s always been what’s driven me in my work. But I think that we’ve only in the last few years adopted a mainstream understanding or started to develop a mainstream understanding of what’s truly happening in the world today. And we’re seeing this with more extreme weather events with flooding and fires and drought and all these crazy storms that keep sweeping through the country. You know, just this week, we’ve had tornadoes and high wind events, and you know, these last several years, at least out in the West where I live, have been marked by wildfires. And I think people start to really experience firsthand the impacts of the changing climate. And it’s no longer this slow-moving futuristic problem. But it’s now, it’s a problem now that’s affecting us today. It’s, it’s starting to, to wake a lot of people up, and it’s driving our government today to make far larger investments in infrastructure and in clean energy.
Amanda Bybee: [00:19:32.22] And so the opportunities have just been expanding exponentially, and that is not going to change. And solar and clean energy industries are, are facing the same types of challenges with labor shortages. And how do we hire enough people to get all of this work done in the timeframe available to us? So, you know, those types of trends are, are, they’re great and exciting trends. And I do, I really think that there’s opportunity for people from just about any background. And so the more we open our minds to that and in particular, we think about diversifying the industry and getting in a new type of person that hasn’t historically been the solar worker. As we think about retraining fossil fuel workers into clean energy, we think about training veterans, we think about including more people with disabilities. We think about like just broadening that tent, every wall of that tent, right? There are so many great ways that we can do, do what we need to do from an economic and societal and environmental perspective, but also do it in a way that really builds community. And so I’m excited about those opportunities, and I think part of our mission right now is just to get the word out that these jobs exist, that you are welcome in them, and that this is, this is a really meaningful type of work because it is solving a humongous problem facing humanity right now, which is the climate crisis.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:21:06.00] This a great conversation and great for HR pros who are thinking about maybe a different industry that they could step into for themselves to be able to help support something bigger than them.
Amanda Bybee: [00:21:18.41] I also think that with what we’ve been seeing with the great resignation and with this expectation of our work quality and pay being a little more competitive and keeping a pace of what’s happening with the increasing cost of goods and all that. I also really think that underneath all of that is a drive for our work to have meaning. And that’s something that you hear about with millennials or whatever categorization we want to apply. But I think all people want their work to have meaning. I don’t think anybody’s content for 40+ hours of their week every week to go to something that feels futile or unimportant. And I think that’s one thing that the clean energy industries offer in spades is this, this sense that we’re a part of something really big and really important and really exciting that, that stands to transition our planet into a really cool and sustainable future that; you know, when I think about the climate crisis and all the doom and gloom of it, I also try to make sure I read as much media that inspires me about the opportunities and that, that really presents new solutions to our problems that also improve our lives. And so I think that that’s another aspect of what we have to offer to the world and to the workers who are looking for work with meaning that maybe not every industry can offer.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:22:44.21] Can you tell me more about the types of companies you’re planning to reach with Renewables Forward and how you can get them to advance their DEIA goals, especially making the workplace more accessible to people with disabilities?
Amanda Bybee: [00:22:57.59] Absolutely. So the, the eight CEOs that had initially banded together to form Renewables Forward largely came from the solar industry. They were solar developers and EPC companies, which EPC is engineering, procurement, and construction. We have since been expanding the roster of member companies to be inclusive of more manufacturers, more financiers, more recruiting companies, more operations and maintenance providers. And we really see, you know, there’s sorry. Let me add to that list a little bit more. The non-profit organizations and even governmental programs, right? Like PIA. And so we see that everybody needs to have a seat at this table, and we want to make sure that we have great representation from across that board and across the different types of clean energy. You know, there’s wind energy companies, there’s green hydrogen, there’s energy efficiency companies, you know, and there’s opportunities within all of these industries that are all growth industries and that all have work to do to make sure that they are accessible. And I think, I think if anything, a huge part of it is, is helping these companies think expansively about their workforce, helping them center the importance for diversity and inclusion in their recruiting and hiring practices to really think through how do we welcome in people from a diverse set of backgrounds. If I am deaf, what do I need in my office space to feel like I belong there? You know, if I am a woman going out on an installation crew, what does that woman need to feel welcome and that she belongs there? If I am in a wheelchair, is my office space accessible? You know, what would it be like to to enter our doors and see the space? And you know, I think that a lot of it is just helping our existing HR professionals, helping our existing management teams understand what it is to walk in someone else’s shoes.
Amanda Bybee: [00:25:24.89] And this is in part hard to do when you’re in this mad growth rush because, you know, what I find in talking with these professionals across so many companies is that people are just so focused on like warm bodies, you know, or growing as fast as they can that they can sometimes lose sight of them. And that’s where I feel like efforts like Renewables Forward come into play and that we say: Hey, pause for a moment. Think about these things. Take a good look at your own practices, take a good look at your policy handbooks. Take a good look at the experience of a worker coming into your doors and think about what it is they encounter when they come in.
Amanda Bybee: [00:26:18.24] Because I really don’t attribute the missteps of the past so much to malice or uncaring as to ignorance. And that’s not an excuse anymore. I think that this is a part of our maturation as an industry that we need to be attuned to the needs of all of the populations that we want to welcome in, and that if inclusion, i.e., retention and a sense of belonging, are a part of that goal and a part of that conversation, then we really need to think about the experience of our workers. And, and do our best to ensure that they, they feel it all the way through. That it’s not just lip service, that it’s not just checking a box, that we’ve diversified our workforce by hiring new populations of people, but also that we are really thinking hard about their experience, about how we serve them and about how we embrace them in our culture. And so I think that’s a huge part of the awakening that has been taking place and what Renewables Forward can help continue to accelerate and keep in front of people so that we achieve our goals of making this really, truly inclusive.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:36.07] This has been a great conversation. I, I really appreciate you. I just feel so at ease and calm as you’re talking. You have a great podcast voice.
Amanda Bybee: [00:27:44.60] Oh, thank you.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:27:45.70] How can people gain in-demand skills quickly in an industry that is growing so rapidly? It sounds like chaos and crazy, and here you are sounding and all calmed. How do how can people get trained up?
Amanda Bybee: [00:28:00.28] Well, I think there, there are several pathways that people can follow. There are a number of really excellent training organizations out there in the world. One of my very favorites is Solar Energy International. They’ve been around for decades. They’re one of the preeminent solar training organizations out there. They offer free classes as well as classes that you can enroll in and pay for. And they, they provide such a valuable standard-bearer for our industry, and the instructors are an incredible wealth of knowledge. And so I love SCI. But in addition to SCI, there are a number of workforce development programs all over the country. There are a bunch of community colleges that have programs that focus on renewable energy. And then lastly, I would say that there are an awful lot of companies who are willing to do on-the-job training. And so in particular, right now, as we’re trying to staff up for our big-2022-and-beyond goals, what most companies are really looking for in their workers. If a worker comes to the door without a lot of experience but can say: I’m eager to learn, I will work hard, you know, invest in me and train me. Most of the companies that I come in contact with would jump at that opportunity. So I think there’s a ton of different ways that individuals can choose to seek out training. If you’re a person that likes classroom-style training, then there’s, there are programs through RCI. There’s programs all over the country.
Amanda Bybee: [00:29:41.26] I’m scared to name them because I’ll forget somebody that I care about and then I will feel silly. But I’d be happy to also help direct you to a bunch of programs. You know, if you’re a young person and you’re in high school or college and you’re looking for internships, there are fantastic opportunities through groups like the Clean Energy Leadership Institute, Solar Austin, Power52, Inroads. There’s, there’s a lot of really great groups out there that are helping place students and young people into like early stage and internship level opportunities so that you can get in there and see. I love internships because there are such a great way to find out what you do and don’t want to do. But if you’re like more mid-level professional or executive-level professional, I think the trick is just to highlight those transferable skills that you’ve gained through your previous experience. Because solar is just like every other industry, it needs all of the skills. And clean energy, solar energy, that can be taught. It’s everything else that people and the individuals bring to the table that we need. So I think don’t be afraid to knock on the door, even if you don’t feel like you have a ton of industry specific experience. The fact is this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, and most companies are happy to help fill in the gaps that you might not have through formal and informal training.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:12.61] I love that. This is an all-hands-on-deck moment, so the time is now and good people who are ready to work can get some great skills training, get skilled up to have a career that can last a lifetime.
Amanda Bybee: [00:31:27.84] Absolutely. This, you know, I’ll just speak for myself and saying, like there’s every year brings a new set of challenges, so this is, this is not a dull industry to be in, but it’s, it is so absolutely fulfilling to know that the work I’m doing is going to benefit my children’s generation and grandchildren and great-grandchildren’s generations. I think this work has a legacy to it. That is one I want to leave.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:31:58.58] Well, Amanda, I appreciate your time and where can people go to learn more about you and all the things that you’re working on?
Amanda Bybee: [00:32:06.62] Well, you can find me on LinkedIn. Amicus O&M has a website, AmicusOM.com. You can always reach out to me via email, which we can put in the show notes.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:32:20.89] Awesome. I will, we’ll have all the things, all the different ways and all the different links to connect with Amanda Bybee and don’t forget about Renewables Forward as well.
Amanda Bybee: [00:32:32.90] Certainly. And with Renewables Forward, it’s, you know, we want to grow this tent. And so one of the things that we do, for example, is we hold monthly webinars for folks that just want to learn more about our work and see if joining up is right for them. So those are the third Thursday of the month and there’s information about that on the website. RenewablesForward.com. You know, one other thing that I want to just say that that is really important to me and that is relevant to all this work. The other two projects that you mentioned in my intro, the Women’s Speakers Bureau with WRISE. For me, a huge part of this diversity equation is being able to see ourselves, right? And having been to many conferences and attended many panel discussions and webinars and things that were staffed wholly with all white men and I love white men, this is nothing against them. I want to see more voices at that table at all those tables, and that was a huge part of why I invested my time in, in building out the Speakers Bureau. So if you are a woman in clean energy and want to help, be a part of that diversification effort. You can go sign yourself up, you don’t even have to be a member of WRISE to join the Speaker’s Bureau. Although, I sure hope you would consider it.
Amanda Bybee: [00:33:55.08] And then the other thing that I just don’t want to give a quick plug to is the SolarRecycle.org website. Because this is, another aspect of sustainability for our industry is thinking about the long-term full lifecycle of solar. What do we do when our equipment reaches the end of its life? And so that’s another opportunity for folks just to help us really be full pictured in the way that we approach the end of life of solar, end of life of a solar PV system. And so we’re looking to build out this resource as a free resource to anyone in the industry. So it’s a, it’s an opportunity to weigh in there and help us grow that resource. And if you are already in the industry and ever need answers, I hope you’ll turn to that as an option.
Jessica Miller-Merrell: [00:34:44.16] So much good information. Inspiring. Thank you so much, Amanda. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today.
Amanda Bybee: [00:34:50.73] It’s my absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me, Jessica.
Closing: [00:34:55.04] This is such an interesting area of focus for apprenticeship, especially for underrepresented and underemployed groups who are interested in a path of learning and certification in the renewable energy sector. I appreciate Amanda for sharing her experience, her expertise, all her knowledge in this area, and her tireless work in helping grow something that’s greater. I loved it. Thank you again, Amanda, for sharing your experience and time with us today, and thank you to PIA, who is powering this podcast, as well as our podcast sponsor, Ace the HR Examand Upskill HR. If you’re like me and you’re like: I need to connect with Amanda, I love all the things that she’s doing. Go on over to Workology.com, take a look at Amanda Bybee’s podcast interview and you can get her LinkedIn, her email, and all the links and places that she is focused on and initiatives that she’s working with. Thank you again, Amanda. I appreciate your time, and I appreciate you for taking a listen to the Workology Podcast.
Closing: [00:35:54.04] 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.
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