Building Pathways to Clean Energy Careers: Solar Austin Develops Equitable Clean Energy Jobs Internship Program

By David Bearley
Solar Austin, Secretary, Board of Directors
NABCEP Certified PV Installation Professional (#091804-5)

Solar Austin has had its one of its most successful and productive years since its founding in 2002. In spite of the global pandemic, we set records in 2020 for fundraising and monthly happy hour attendance. After years of operating as an all-volunteer board, we hired a three-quarter time staffer. Most importantly, we successfully executed a City of Austin-grant funded equitable clean energy jobs internship pilot program and converted it into a permanent year-round program.

In 2019, Vote Solar and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) initiated a diversity challenge to the solar industry. Surveys indicate that the solar workforce does not adequately reflect the country’s diverse backgrounds and experiences. As is the case in other industries and construction trades, women and people of color are underrepresented at solar companies and in clean energy careers.

This lack of access, representation, and diversity is not only a problem for underrepresented communities, but also for organizations. Years of studies have proven that workforce diversity and cultural inclusivity create stronger, more innovative, and more resilient organizations. Gender and racial diversity are clearly correlated with profitability, improving a company’s market performance, and overall bottom-line.

To address this problem, Solar Austin developed an Equitable Clean Energy Jobs internship matching program that benefits both employers and employees. Leveraging a $25k grant from the City of Austin, Solar Austin hired a program manager to recruit program participants, which include local clean energy companies as well as students of color and women students, and oversee program operations. In spite of the fact that the summer internships took place during a global pandemic, the Equitable Clean Energy Job pilot program exceeded our goals and key performance indicators.

The internship program benefits students by placing them in paid internships that provide valuable experience in a growing field. The program benefits employers by matching well-qualified students to specific job descriptions. Solar Austin’s strategic partners and consultants not only provide resume writing and job interview training to students but also provide diversity and inclusion training to host companies. It is a win-win for all parties.

Based on the success of our pilot program, Solar Austin has expanded its efforts to cultivate a diverse and inclusive solar workforce via a permanent program that we are calling Pathways to Clean Energy Careers. Solar Austin placed fall interns in October and will place another round of interns in the spring semester. To enhance the value to students, the permanent program provides interns with professional mentors.

As interest in the Pathways program grows, Solar Austin’s biggest challenge is finding host companies, as we consistently have more qualified students than open internship opportunities. We believe that this is a bottleneck we can solve, in part because it is not uncommon for a company to remain engaged in the program after hosting its first intern.

When Solar Austin launched its pilot internship program, its board of directors did not necessarily have a long-term plan in place to fund a permanent program management position. In practice, the timely and successful program benefitting students of color and women students has provided Solar Austin with a compelling story to tell during fundraising and grant writing endeavors. Thanks to the generous response of small donors, business sponsors, and grantmaking foundations, Solar Austin finds itself at the close of 2020 in a strong financial position to continue improving and expanding its innovative and equitable Pathways to Clean Energy Careers program.