To combat the climate crisis we need more workers; however, and more importantly, we need to grow access to renewable energy jobs and training so that the workforce is equitable and accessible to all. Women make up 26% of the U.S. solar industry. Nationwide, only 2% of electricians are women. If we're going to achieve our climate goals, we need to drastically increase the number of women entering the solar field.
Our efforts in equitable solar workforce development have led us to meet some really inspiring and awesome people. One of those is Riley Neugebauer, solar installer and electrical apprentice for Namaste Solar, and founder of Solar for Women, a non profit organization on a mission to empower women through technical training and community building. Riley is drawing more women into solar while making the industry a better place for women.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Riley working on a Namaste Solar installation. (Photo credit: Riley Neugebauer)Riley: I went to school for solar installation and design 14 years ago, then couldn't really find work in solar PV, so I moved across the country and worked for non profits. I became a farmer, amongst other things, for about a decade. I lived in Maine for 5 years and ran a small farm business in the Midcoast, and also worked for an organization called Farm to Institution New England. When I moved back to Colorado a few years ago to get back into solar, the industry was in a much different place.
I'm now a full-time installer at Namaste Solar and continuing in my role as an electrical apprentice. I should be able to take the Residential Wire(wo)man's test to get the first tier of my electrical license in a year or so!
It's been a journey that isn't linear, and with lots of challenges. But I'm glad I'm here and still pursuing this path. And as a woman who is now 40, I still feel determined to stick to it! Plus, I enjoy being out on roofs, staying active, and enjoying the sunshine!
I've met a lot of disempowering men in leadership positions that made it difficult at times to continue on this path. The trades are still very much dominated by men. We need determined, curious, and engaged women to step up and help with the ongoing effort to change the statistics about the number of women in the electrical and solar field! We can do this, and we also can make the workplace better by increasing our numbers!
Namaste, where I work now, is a cooperative and is employee-owned, making it a great place to work. I feel like I am encouraged and supported in my goals, and asked for input in company decisions.
I like being an electrical apprentice because it allows me to learn while working, and the work is very hands-on, outdoors, and fulfilling because you get to see your progress in a very tangible way each day. I also like that apprenticeship and ultimately, licensure, can provide better pay that can be linked to a clear path forward. I also enjoy being in solar because I want to contribute to the efforts to tackle climate change.
Photo Credit: Solar for WomenIf you are someone who enjoys working with your hands, or are curious about it, and you don't mind working outside at least some of the time, and you like problem-solving, then you might LOVE a career in the trades, and it is definitely worth a shot.
You might like to start working and making money after high school, and learn a trade through work instead of going to college, or you might decide to work in the trades and go to college later. There are lots of options, and the trades are a great way to get exposure to career pathways that can be sustainable and empowering.
After a series of disempowering and challenging experiences working for different solar companies in southwest Colorado, I decided I wanted to do more to support women who were already in installer and technician roles in solar, and those who wanted to pursue it as a potential career path.
I had to empower myself because I wasn’t getting the support I wanted or needed as one of a very small number of women in the field. So I started mapping out a vision and set of ideas for what the organization could do. The overarching purpose is to help connect, inspire, and empower more women to pursue technical roles in solar.
Photo Credit: Solar for WomenMy hope is that Solar for Women can become a place for women who are seeking a network of other women in technical positions in solar, where we might offer connection and empowerment to one another, as well as share resources. I also really hope that the organization can lead trainings for women, both online and in person, that focus on women and are led by women.
I might need to hire staff to really help get the organization up and running and launch trainings and outreach. It turns out that it is hard to work full-time in a physical position and also build and run a non profit! Perhaps Solar for Women will one day consult with companies and others that really want to recruit, train, and retain women as installers and technicians.
In the interim, I continue to build and contribute to an online Facebook group for women installers that I started about a year ago, and stay connected with organizations like ASES, who have been very supportive via featuring an article I wrote in their publication (Solar Today) and including me as a presenter in their annual conferences. This is a small way I can help contribute to the ongoing discourse around women in the solar trades.
Photo credit: Solar for WomenThere is a lot of need when it comes to diversifying the workforce as a whole, building more inclusive workplaces, and creating more diverse leadership teams. I still am waiting to see numbers change when it comes to women in the field. It’s been the same for a couple decades now as far as I can tell, and it’s time to improve more rapidly. If we don’t, how else will we be able to keep up with the level of growth and demand expected in the industry?
I think we need more company engagement and commitment around goals to increase diversity in the field, and a willingness to share what’s working and what’s not within a cohort of stakeholders who are all interested in the same outcomes. A national coalition of companies and other stakeholders who set goals around women in the field (rather than just talking about the number of women in solar overall) would be helpful. Can we get to 10% women in the field in the next ten years? Seems like it should be doable, but it would require a lot of effort.
The other piece of the puzzle is STEM and trades education for K-12 students, and specifically having programs for girls. We have to build a pathway that starts with education around solar and the trades, without the stigma that has been so often associated with trades work up until now. I don’t see a lot of programs particularly geared towards girls and solar, and I think there is a need for it!
Thank you Riley for speaking with us about these important issues and for helping to make the solar workforce more accessible and equitable for women. For more on Riley's work, visit solarforwomen.com.