It’s no secret that women are very underrepresented in the solar industry. According to the National Solar Job Census, women made up just under 30% of solar employees in 2021, which is well below the 47% of women that make up the national workforce. Looking at women in solar trades positions, that number surely diminishes further; although, research on the topic is virtually nonexistent.
Have you ever wondered why your company doesn’t have more women (or any women at all) on your installation crews? Join two NABCEP PV Installation Professionals, Riley Neugebauer and Brit Heller, as we discuss ideas for recruiting women for trades roles, building an inclusive company culture to retain top talent (women and otherwise), and our own experiences breaking into the field of solar construction.
Tune into the video or read the transcript below.
Brit: Riley, I’m so excited to have this conversation with you for the HeatSpring audience. This is something I think about a ton, but today just wanted to dive into your thoughts on why are there not that many women in solar trades jobs?
Riley: Thanks. I’m excited to be here as well. My name’s Riley Neugebauer. I work in Colorado and I’m soon to be a full-time installer with a company based in Boulder. I’ve been in solar for the last three or four years down in Southwest Colorado as an installer and a project manager and just going to continue down that path and then also doing some advocacy work around promoting more women in solar as well through something called Solar for Women.
My experience is that one of the major issues with why there are not a lot of women in the trades in general, but in solar in particular, is just that the culture of the trades is a little intimidating for a lot of women. Unfortunately, a lot of companies are not putting a lot of emphasis on trying to recruit and retain women.
I don’t think it’s just particular to women. I think there are issues on the racial side as well. I think there just needs to be more emphasis there.
Then there’s a lack of women currently in those roles and in leadership roles, and so I think when women look at a company, they’re not really seeing themselves reflected there.
That can be a hard thing to try and be the first one in a culture or inside of a company, so that’s probably even more intimidating or not super encouraging.
I would say the other things I’ve noticed are just that our K12 education system also is doing a not great job of promoting the idea of women getting into the trades.
And I think for a long time there’s been the sense that getting into the trades means that it’s something that the kids do who don’t do well in school otherwise. Instead of it being seen as an actual viable career pathway and respectable dignified type of work to pursue. There is work going on to change that, but I think that’s pretty embedded in the K12 education culture. So trying to change that dynamic and get to girls earlier, because on top of that being the general culture, I also think girls are not given as much access to STEM education tools, as a group of girls, which I think can really help them. Seeing women in these positions when they’re younger could really help.
Those are probably the big ones I could think of right now. And then just training. I think there’s a lack of good training resources for women, either internal to companies they might want to work for, or externally for them to explore getting into the trades.
Brit: Yeah, those things all really resonated.I feel like I see a lot of those things as well, and still hear, the stigma around trades jobs, regardless of gender, which to me is just such a wild mainstream perception when these jobs are really well paid, critical jobs that can’t be outsourced. Like we need more plumbers, more electricians. I can’t agree more. I’ve been in a number of workforce meetings where that comes up a ton.
I’m curious how you then found yourself as a solar installer. Did you have a construction background?
Riley: Yeah, that’s a good question. Let’s see. I come from rural western Pennsylvania. My dad and my brother are both in the trades and my dad has been in the trades most of my life. And so I was exposed to it pretty early on, but I wouldn’t say that I was actually taught a whole lot at home, but I was raised in this kind of rural, work hard, raised animals, road horses, did all the things as a kid. So, work was not something I was afraid of by any means, but I didn’t have a lot of exposure to that training early on that a lot of boys get I think from how we’re socialized in our family environments. But nonetheless, I had an interest in doing things with my hands.
I did really well in school. And so I think the assumption kind of like what we were just getting at was always like, you’re on the track to go to college and do this kind of like other professional thing – whatever that might be – that isn’t the trades, because you’re the one in the family who’s like got the smarts or whatever.
So yeah, I did that. I went to college and was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. And I went to school for environmental studies because I have been an environmentalist forever, it feels like, since I was a kid.
And so I was moving around the energy and sustainability world for a long time and decided after a couple years of work after college, doing sustainability work, and higher education, that I wanted to get a hands-on skill. Solar just fit the best for me in my interests. So I explored programs around the country and the one that I ended up doing was the one at San Juan College in northern New Mexico. That was about 13-14 years ago now.
The idea was you’d go to school for a year and get a certificate in doing both design for photovoltaic systems, but also installation. I called them up and said, “you know, I don’t really have a lot of experience, is this going to work?” And they said, “oh yeah, you know, it’s from the ground up.”
So I went to that program. It was 14 guys and me, all of whom pretty much had experience in the trades, except for me. It was a little daunting and I went in thinking I was going to leave there and form a women’s solar company. Then pretty quickly realized that that was not the case. It was going to be a lot harder than that. And that I didn’t actually have the experience I really needed on the install side.
After that, I worked for a solar thermal installer. Ultimately tried to apply to GRID Alternatives in California, who was just getting started, and didn’t get a job there. So I kind of gave up on solar and then got into food systems work for like 10 years, then came back around to solar 3 or 4 years ago when I got back to Colorado.
The industry is just so much more mature in a sense now, just that it’s growing more rapidly and there’s a lot more jobs back then. It was still trying to figure itself out, I think. And it was a financial recession. So there’s just a lot more opportunities now. So I jumped on that and have been doing installation and project management ever since.
Brit: Very cool.
Riley: How about you? What about your story?
Brit: I also was a solar trades woman for a while there. Some of the things we were saying earlier really resonated. I was doing solar sales and I knew for my own career development, like I love solar and I wanted to do so much work, in all different areas of it. But I knew I needed to learn how to build it, if I really wanted to have street cred, for lack of a better word.
So I was in Colorado and I actually applied for a job at a company, did the interview process, the working interview, was on a roof that whole day, got the job offer, and then I didn’t take it because I didn’t see a single woman in the whole warehouse. I didn’t want to be that – like you were saying – I just didn’t want to be that first person.
Even though I feel like I’m somebody who has a ton of guy friends, all that stuff. I also didn’t learn construction growing up.
For me, learning construction was a very humbling experience – to be so bad at something at the start. It was just mortifying, honestly, not knowing how to hold a drill correctly.
So I ended up getting a job at GRID Alternatives. As you mentioned, they’re really purposeful and have a lot of intention around training women and people who may not have had exposure to construction. I ended up taking a construction job there.
I was so thankful that I did because having that organization take the time to really train me. I could do it as well as everybody else. I just needed that little bit of extra help in the beginning, which I know for a lot of companies, it can be hard to take that initial loss in productivity for a longer term vision of it.
But I’m thankful for it because now, I can build so many things and build all sorts of huge functional art at my house. It’s not just the solar job. When companies take the time to train women or people who really want to learn construction skills, it just opens so many doors for that individual, in addition to just the job that’s like right there. So that was how I got into solar trades.
I was just curious, when you were talking about starting at San Juan and you hadn’t had much experience, did you have a similar experience of having to learn tools and all those things in this public environment?
Riley: Ohhh yeah. I mean, I feel like I’m pretty fearless in that particular environment, when it’s an educational setting, because I think that it’s a safer space to be able to show up. Even if it’s all guys, when you know you’re in a space that’s meant to be about learning and there are instructors there to help manage that kind of expectation and culture.
So yes, I feel like at the same time, it was also hard to be the person that clearly knew the least about how to do everything. Like put the thing into the thing. And what’s the thing called, and I don’t even know the words and like, how do you ask the questions? And I feel like an idiot, but there was a lot of that going on, but I fortunately was in a group with a lot of nice folks.
I have had this experience in a different way. I might have learned how to use some of the tools. Then working these past few years, when I got back into it, there were definitely a fair amount of moments where the space was not as welcoming or encouraging. The expectation is you just figure stuff out and you’re not really being trained. And it’s not really okay to ask questions all the time because of the tone that’s being set or the urgency of how it feels from management or whatever.
That’s been a lot more of a struggle for me is that, if you literally don’t know how to do something – like, no, I’m not going to be the person who’s just going to slap this together and hope for the best. I care too much about what I’m doing and my integrity around it.
So I want to ask more questions. Then I find that sometimes in the trades culture, that’s not okay.
Brit: I think that’s a pretty interesting and very true observation in most settings that are really production focused. I definitely understand that there’s a need for that too, but in reality, taking the time and making sure people know what they need to do will then pay dividends in the long term, if you’re thinking about it in that way.
In an ideal site – maybe you’ve experienced this or something that you’re dreaming of – what does that interaction on site look like? How can you go into your ideal work environment where you feel really welcomed?
Riley: I think that one thing I would say is that, like you, I want to be able to show up and see other women around. I don’t want to be the only one. I am someone who’s willing to play that role to some degree, but I would prefer to go somewhere in an environment where you show up and know that there’s going to be women there.
And it’s not even surprising when you see a woman. It’s just like, there’s just women who are doing this work and it’s because we all feel comfortable enough to be doing it.
I would say I want to work somewhere where I know the leadership of that place, however small or large, is committed to the concept of diversity and inclusion and equity. They aren’t just paying lip service to it. They are demonstrating that through the way that they speak to you, to the way that they speak externally to clients and others, and to the way that they interact with other trades people. I want it to be just part of the culture in that sense, not just on the website – but it’s good if it’s there too!
Let’s see. If I’m new and I’m starting somewhere, I want someone to tell me what the training program is, so there’s some expectation around qualifications, depending on what role you’re playing or where you’re starting from. So you know, this is our process. Like every person who comes here goes through X, Y, Z safety training and that’s the expectation; or every person that comes here goes through diversity training and here’s what that looks like; or every person that comes here is going to go out with our training crew for the day or maybe for a week or a month, whatever is needed to give you the time and space to get you to the place where you then can fully take on whatever role it is that you’re taking on.
That’s one thing that I’ll say for Namaste is that they have a training crew that when you start, you work with them. There’s less of this focus on doing everything fast and just figuring it out. There’s more of this time to learn and ask questions. That’s the expectation is that you’re there to make sure you know what you’re doing and you’re doing it safely and you understand company practices before you jump into the rest of it. I really appreciate that as a strategy and I like it.
I think for me, it’s workplace culture in another sense, like if I spend 40 hours plus a week engaged in something that I’m doing, because I care about it in my case, and that may not be true for everyone, but it’s a lot of time that I’m spending doing something.
If it’s in support of a for-profit company in particular, I would like to know that they care about employee wellness, meaning mental health and otherwise. How does safety matter? How do you listen to feedback? How do you create fun? How do you make people want to show up at work and be excited to meet the people that they work with and respect the leadership?
I really need that. I need there to be some sort of community feel to it.
I spend 40 hours a week here. I’d like to make it feel good if I can. When stuff goes wrong, which sometimes it does, there’s some sort of process that you can work through things without it just being like I quit or you’re fired. There’s a pathway for conflict resolution and listening.
Brit: That’s a page that most companies could take and pay attention to whether it’s just retaining women or just retaining quality workers. It’s building a culture that people really are stoked to be a part of.
That is so critical for me as well. I will not last long at a job that doesn’t do that. Life’s too short.
Riley: Yep. Yeah. I agreed.
Brit: Tell me a little bit about Solar for Women and your aspirations for it.
Riley: I started Solar for Women as a result of some of my own experiences in the industry and really desiring there to be something different and for it to feel differently than what I had felt on the job sites.
It’s serving a few purposes. One is to build more of a network of women on the install and technical side. I think there’s a lot of really awesome networks of women in solar, in the industry more broadly, that are already doing a great job to help the folks who are doing more leadership roles or who might be in sales, marketing HR, or engineering, or whatever.
I just didn’t really see a place where I fit in with a lot of other women doing something more similar to what I was doing on the technical side. I just thought I’ll try to help build that. I’m a part of some of those other groups and I wanted to have this more focused group on the installer/technical side. That’s where the solar for women concept came about.
We have a Facebook group that is for women who are installers or used to be installers or who might want to become an installer. It’s really focused on that particular niche. There’s a handful of women who are business owners who also do stuff on the roof and have interest in seeing more women in the field and therefore have some power to potentially hire those women too.
The other piece of it, in the longer term, is training. I’d like to get into a position where we can train more women on the technical side of solar. I think that could be relevant to both women that really want to get into this as more of a career track, could be for women who just want to attempt to put solar on their cabin or their van, and it could be for women that are just in need of some technical training because they have another role in the solar industry and feel like (what you were getting at like), “oh, I’m selling solar, but I don’t really know exactly what’s going on out there on the roof or what these things are.” Helping some of those women feel a little more comfortable.
Part of the solution is having women learn from another woman feels important to me. It would’ve been something I would’ve liked a lot. Also having women get to learn together whenever possible in cohorts, whether that’s in person or even online. I think it is important to build that community and affinity around. It is desirable and something that I’ve witnessed personally, by being in in-person classes with all women doing PV stuff and how much different that feels than going to classes where it’s all men. It’s just different and it feels better and creates more community, which women seem to be drawn to. So that’s a piece of it.
What else? The research piece is big. That’s something I’m hoping that Solar for Women can contribute to as well. How can we get better data on how many women are actually in these more technical and field based roles? What can be more of a realistic expectation for the future? How can we work towards those goals?
Related to that, ultimately some consulting around how we help companies and others that want to do better, implement best practices and have a plan in place to recruit and retain more women as a part of their team.
The solar industry’s growing so rapidly, but I just feel like we can’t leave women out. It’s not as simple as saying – like a guy told me recently – that it’s a mentality problem of women, because the jobs are there.
No, I think employers actually need to be more strategic and more thoughtful about this and have some real commitment to it, if they want that to be part of their strategy for hiring.
Brit: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s so true. It’s really got to be an intentional effort. Having been on the opposite end as a job seeker, I know I was craving that and I’m sure you do too. And I’m sure if people talk to a lot of different women, they’ll feel the same way or express something similar.
This is all really exciting work that you’re doing. I think it’s really critical. Just like you were saying, we want to turn our grid to a carbon-free grid and not use fossil fuels. Solar’s a huge piece of that. We need more solar technicians. We need more solar installers. And we need more of those people to be women, so I think this works really important. I also wanna see more women in the field and I am really excited to see where you take Solar for Women in the years ahead. Thanks Riley!