In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Adewale OgunBadejo, vice president for workforce development at GRID Alternatives, the largest nonprofit installer of solar panels in the United States. OgunBadejo and Hayes discuss how an organization can recruit and train people effectively in the solar industry, how partnerships with organizations in clean energy industries can bolster workforce development, and how the clean energy transition offers important opportunities for positive socioeconomic change.
Listen to the Podcast
- Working toward an inclusive, equitable energy transition: “Our mission is to build community power solutions to advance economic and environmental justice through renewable energy. We envision a rapid, equitable transition to a world powered by renewable energy that benefits everyone, but we realize that this vision can only be realized with a solar workforce that is inclusive of everybody.” (3:32)
- The transition to clean energy holds opportunities and solutions: “The amount of jobs that the investment in clean energy is going to generate can’t just be something that addresses environmental justice. I think there’s also a component for socioeconomic justice that should not be overlooked. We have the opportunity to address a number of different problems at once.” (15:39)
- Partnerships can help prepare a scalable clean energy workforce: “Partnerships are one of the keys to success, and they’re definitely one of the keys to thinking about how we prepare a clean energy workforce system at scale in an efficient way—and soon, because the demand is now. There’s no single organization that’s going to be able to train thousands and thousands of workers a year; it’s going to take partnerships. We look at ourselves as a connective tissue, and complementary, not competitive, to our partners.” (24:24)
Top of the Stack
- Key Recommendations: Cultivating a Diverse and Skilled Talent Pipeline for the Equitable Transition from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council
- National Solar Jobs Census 2021 from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristen Hayes.
My guest today is Adewale OgunBadejo, vice president for workforce development at GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2001 and is now the nation’s largest nonprofit solar installer. They serve families throughout California, Colorado, the mid-Atlantic region, as well as tribal communities nationwide. In addition to directly facilitating the installation of solar systems, GRID Alternatives has developed and invested in a number of workforce development programs related to the solar industry over the years.
Join Adewale and me as we discuss what GRID has learned over the years about what works—and what doesn’t—in clean energy workforce development, what lessons might be transferable from the solar industry to other clean tech, and how to ensure that clean energy workforce development programs are reaching a broad cross-section of US workers. Stay with us.
Hi, Adewale. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me here today on Resources Radio.
Adewale OgunBadejo: Hello, Kristin. Thanks for having me, and happy Women’s History Month!
Kristin Hayes: Thank you so much. I’d love to start by hearing more about you. Can you share a little about your own background and how you ended up working in solar energy?
Adewale OgunBadejo: It was an interesting transition into my career in solar. A little over a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to have an uncle who invited me to Vietnam for a solar project. At the time, I had never heard about solar—or clean energy, for that matter. I took the trip and was there for a month, and I learned a lot about solar and clean energy. When I came back to California, I went to Los Angeles Trade–Technical College and studied photovoltaics, which is the more technical term for solar electric. That’s how my career at GRID started.
For me, it was a career transition. Before that, I was working in local communities, particularly with the African American community; and I was working at California State University, Dominguez Hills, doing some dissemination to the community around policies that were coming down from the state level.
That was interesting, but the thing about dealing with work at the policy level is that you don’t get to see the implementation side. With my work now, I’m able to see the policy being implemented, and it’s kept me busy for well over a decade, so I’m loving the work.
Kristin Hayes: I can imagine how satisfying it is to build, to see things go on roofs, and feel the physical impacts of the work that you’re doing.
Let’s talk about workforce development programs, which is the department, or the section of the organization, that you run. Before we talk about the big picture of workforce development programs, I want to make sure I ground that conversation in the types of programs that GRID Alternatives is running. Can you share a little about what you, at GRID, are doing in this space?
Adewale OgunBadejo: Our mission is to build community power solutions to advance economic and environmental justice through renewable energy. We envision a rapid, equitable transition to a world powered by renewable energy that benefits everyone, but we realize that this vision can only be realized with a solar workforce that is inclusive of everybody.
How do we get there? is the question. Over the last decade, or a little over a decade, we’ve developed several programs and initiatives that focus on connecting employers to a diverse group of job seekers. Now, we’re also moving towards building out an existing subcontractor model that’s evolving into a mission-aligned contractor network. Looking at it on two sides, one is training individuals from local communities, and the other one is supporting the natural entrepreneurial spirit that also exists in these same communities that we serve.
At the core of our workforce development programs, we have two programs that serve the communities in the most impactful way. One is our Installation Basics Training program—a competency-based certificate program that’s designed to develop the skills that are most relevant to entry-level solar-installation jobs and related construction employment fields. We see what we’re doing in solar as building transferable skills; learning to use power tools is something that is applicable across the construction industry. Learning safety is something that is applicable across the industry.
Our Installation Basics Training program focuses on individual certificates and industry recognized skills, and it provides trainees with valuable hands-on training and access to employment opportunities. We look at it in a holistic way; it’s not just the technical training. It’s also providing the wraparound supportive services—soft skills and addressing barriers to employment, such as financial literacy.
We also serve particular target groups, including opportunity youth; justice-involved, formerly incarcerated individuals; women; and military veterans. We want to make sure that we’re looking at the individual—not just training them technically, but also addressing their needs and the things that have prevented them from either getting a job or moving toward a career in the past. That’s our Installation Basics Training program, and we deliver that in two ways.
We have our Installation Basics Training (IBT) 200 program, which is delivered internally in-house at our brick-and-mortar locations, of which we have eight—six in California, one in Colorado, one in Washington, DC—and then we do tribal work throughout the country, as well.
Our Installation Basics 200 is the same core competency as our Installation Basics 120, but it’s designed to serve individuals in the local communities in which we exist. Our Installation Basics 120 is a model that we’ve recently built out and are very excited about. In terms of how to prepare a workforce for the coming redevelopment of our clean energy infrastructure, how do we prepare for that? We’ve built out a program that will allow us to work with partners across the country where we don’t have brick-and-mortar locations so that we can be a part of growing out the needed workforce to meet the demands of building clean energy infrastructure.
Our second program is our SolarCorps Fellowship program. It’s an opportunity for those who are highly motivated and enthusiastic to join GRID for an 11-month paid term of service to the community that also prepares them for renewable energy careers. To date, we’ve had more than 300 people that have served as fellows in our SolarCorps program.
SolarCorps is our most impactful job training program. Of the individuals that go through our SolarCorps program, our placement rate is 90 to 95 percent annually. Between our Installation Basics Training program and our SolarCorps Fellowship program, we see a lot of success and impact in moving individuals from the training space into a job, green career opportunities, and solar and related industries.
Kristin Hayes: It sounds like that’s quite a mix of offerings. It’s different pieces of the puzzle coming together, tailored for different communities. It sounds like some of those pieces meet different communities’ needs in different ways, but I’m guessing that that slate of programs has grown and evolved over time. You said, for example, that some of the pieces are fairly new. Can you say a bit more about the evolution, and how you landed on this particular portfolio of approaches? I guess I’m asking you to air a little of the internal conversation about what didn’t work. How did you end up here with this combination of things?
Adewale OgunBadejo: Kind of behind the curtains, right?
Kristin Hayes: If you’re willing.
Adewale OgunBadejo: I’ve been fortunate to be with the organization since 2010, which kind of dates myself. I’ve seen and been a part of the evolution itself, in terms of what worked and what didn’t. When we started, we were more of a volunteer program—a kind of Habitat for Humanity model, where people would just come out and volunteer with us.
Around 2010 and 2011, as a result of some initiatives and funding that came down from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and, more specifically, the California Solar Initiative, which was launched in 2006, there was a spur of industry growth in California, especially in the residential sector. You had a lot of solar companies popping up. At that time, a solar company would recruit potential candidates in ways as simple as using Craigslist. They just needed people.
We did not have an industry-specific, trained, and competent workforce. We had training and vocational programs popping up at the same time, so people were in the classroom beginning to learn the theory of solar, what was missing, and the hands-on application.
At the time, GRID Alternatives was the only organization that you could come to for free at this basic level of understanding to get on a roof and install solar. We had more and more individuals that began to come to GRID Alternatives to get that experience. We did not have a formal job training program at that time, but we certainly began to feel the need to create one. That was the beginning of the evolution of what we have today, which is our Installation Basics Training program.
After the evolution of the volunteer program, it became this team-leader program, where volunteers that had been with us for three to six months would step into a team-leader role. They would support our solar-installation supervisors, which are, in the for-profit world, the lead installers on a residential job.
By 2019, we formally launched our Installation Basics Training program. We built in a stipended, paid training model to earn while you learn, because the individuals that were coming to us were traditionally underemployed or unemployed. It was not always ideal for them to give up their time. If we could figure out a way to supplement some of their time in a way that they could at least take care of a couple of bills and be encouraged to successfully complete the program, we believed that we would have a better chance of moving individuals into career opportunities after the training.
Today, our programs are tied to outcomes that have tangible and measured impacts on the communities that we serve. The most important metrics are program completion and attaining employment that pays family-sustaining wages and that leads to careers in clean energy and related industries.
The last thing that we want to do is go into local communities and train people in a way that doesn’t lead to employment and career opportunities afterwards, because that’s not true impact for us.
Kristin Hayes: That’s a good stage-setting for the broader question about what works and what doesn’t in solar workforce development. In your previous answer, you mentioned connections to jobs—providing financial incentives to, in economic terms, pay the opportunity cost of doing this particular training versus having another job—and connections to employers. Lots of different things have been part of your evolution and have led to the kind of impact that you’re looking for. How would you summarize some of those critical lessons that you’ve learned about on how to design these programs to be meaningful and sustainable?
Adewale OgunBadejo: You have to start from a community-centric approach, deciding what works for who and who it is you’re trying to serve. Once you figure out who it is you’re trying to serve, you want to have the ear of the community—speak to them, listen to them, and see what it is the community’s asking for. I don’t think we should sit outside of local communities and make decisions for those communities that are going to impact them one way or the other. It’s important that you get on the ground and that you engage the community.
It has to be a boots-on-the-ground approach. You can’t create solutions that they didn’t ask for. You start by having those community relationships. You can’t build an equitable, inclusive, and diverse workforce development program if you don’t have that. I would start there.
I think about the massive investment in clean energy, how it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing—at least in clean energy, at this point. We’ve seen it in other technologies, such as when the internet came online, as well as some other opportunities. The amount of jobs that the investment in clean energy is going to generate can’t just be something that addresses environmental justice. I think there’s also a component for socioeconomic justice that should not be overlooked. We have the opportunity to address a number of different problems at once.
When you think about how to design meaningful and sustainable programs, you have to have a community-centric approach, and you also have to think about the outcomes. Your outcomes have to be tangible; they have to be impactful. You can’t say you want to do a workforce development program just to train people if you’re not thinking about what’s on the other end. Does it lead to employment? Does it lead to family-sustaining wages? What do those wages look like?
One thing that’s important for us is advocating to the employers on the employment side and being active in that space. We can have conversations about diversity and about equity and inclusion, but it can be lip service a lot of times. It can look good on paper, on the website, or whatever the case. But, when a lot of the individuals from the diverse communities that we’re training go to these companies, the companies are not prepared for the diversity.
We’ve done a lot of work in-house at GRID Alternatives that is in line with our strategic plan, strategic thinking, and our own equity, inclusion, and diversity work. We’ve looked at our organization and seen how we’re diverse, how we’re not diverse, and asked what we need to do. Diversity to us includes gender, it includes race, and it includes culture. How do you make sure that your company is ready to receive a diverse workforce? The only way that we can reach our climate goals is if we include everybody. There’s a lot of work that has to be done if we’re going to have a successful workforce and ecosystem from the workforce training programs to employment.
Kristin Hayes: I’m curious whether you feel like these lessons are unique to the solar industry, or if they might translate to something that is more out of sight and out of mind, such as offshore wind or something even more emerging—like hydrogen production and use, for example. Things that aren’t as visible in communities or that might operate on a different scale. Do you have any thoughts on what’s unique to the solar industry versus what has broader applicability?
Adewale OgunBadejo: I think that it depends on the technology and where it lives. Solar is a much more decentralized technology. It can be deployed in a localized way, and there’s an opportunity to make it accessible to everyone. Something such as offshore wind is much more geographically specific, or, like you said, it’s in isolated areas, making it less accessible.
Conceptually, and in terms of how you prepare people and how you build the workforce, yes, the lessons could translate. In terms of the actual implementation and how you move people into those jobs, I think the strategies have to be different, even if you’re dealing with onshore wind. In California, a lot of the wind farms are out in the country. You have to go far up north, or you have to go to the middle of the state. You’re not going to find those jobs in Los Angeles or in Oakland, but you will find a bunch of rooftops that you can put solar on.
You have to understand the geographic application of the technologies. Either way, you can prepare individuals from diverse communities for opportunities in emerging clean energy technologies. The part of how you connect them to the jobs, the employment, or the career opportunities is going to be different in its strategy.
Kristin Hayes: It seems like the connection to employers and connecting job seekers to employers is central to what you do at GRID Alternatives. This may be asking you to state the obvious, but I’d love to dive into that a bit more deeply and ask if you can articulate why that’s such an important piece of the puzzle for you. I’m curious about whether that’s something that’s been undervalued over the years, or is that a standard part of workforce development programs in your experience?
Adewale OgunBadejo: It might have been undervalued, but it’s also been siloed. You have your training programs on the vocational side—the community colleges and the local community-based organizations—and then you have your private-sector employers in another corner. Then you have the workforce and the local and state workforce development systems, and they’re not always working in concert.
How do you all work in concert to create a holistic workforce development system that specifically applies to the clean energy industry? Other industries have been able to do that, because they are more conventional, and they’ve been around for a long time. When you look at the general construction industry and specific trades such as carpentry or electrical, they are tied into the workforce system already. For a newer technology, where we’re just building out our workforce development programs, there’s still a disconnect between those three that I just mentioned—from employment, to the workforce system, to the people who are providing the training.
I think that it has maybe not been undervalued but overlooked, in terms of connecting the different parts that make for a successful workforce development ecosystem.
Kristin Hayes: At the risk of putting words in your mouth, it sounds like GRID has taken on some of that role within one single organization—within your organization. Or does that happen via partnerships? Or both?
Adewale OgunBadejo: I preach partnerships. I believe in partnerships. You can’t do it all by yourself. You have to have partnerships in place, because we’re all limited in capacity—not just staff capacity, but actual structural capacity, too. Our sweet spot is providing training to the individuals that we work with, reaching deep into communities, and then being the connector. What we can’t do is provide mental health services, legal services, or financial literacy, so we’ll go and find partners to bring those services to the individuals we’re training.
We are an employer, but we are also limited in how many people we can hire a year. We have to have multiple offerings, and that includes labor unions, private-sector employers, the small mom-and-pop shops, all the way up to the large Sunruns and SunPowers of the world.
Partnerships are one of the keys to success, and they’re definitely one of the keys to thinking about how we prepare a clean energy workforce system at scale in an efficient way—and soon, because the demand is now. There’s no single organization that’s going to be able to train thousands and thousands of workers a year; it’s going to take partnerships. We look at ourselves as a connective tissue, and complementary, not competitive, to our partners.
Kristin Hayes: We’ve both hinted at the idea that this has the potential to be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to expand the number of folks who are working in clean energy, given the US Department of Energy requirements related to workforce development and community benefits. All of those things are built into the fabric of accessing funds from these bills that have passed—the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. If you want to get those resources, there are requirements that you need to invest in workforce development.
It looks like we might be in for a boom in the number of these programs, and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you. Also, I want to pick your brain about this: If there are going to be more of these programs that get up and running, what tools are available to those folks who are starting out who are building these programs? What tools are available to them as they stand these programs up, and how can they learn from past experience from a place like GRID to do it right moving forward?
Adewale OgunBadejo: The tools that are available are found in a lot of the partnerships. This means getting out and speaking to those organizations that have been doing the work for the last 10 years, including community-based organizations, organizations that are specific to trades, organizations such as the Solar Energy Industry Association, and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. These organizations have a wealth of resources, including things like the solar career map. Every year, the Interstate Renewable Energy Council produces a solar job census that lets you look at all 50 states and understand the big picture, the micropicture what the job outlet looks like, and where we are in terms of the job market now. You can look at it state by state, and you can understand where the growth is going to be.
There’s a lot of information that you can find throughout the workforce development system, especially in terms of how to build workforce development programs. I would recommend that people attend trade shows and have conversations so that you can understand the industry. When I was first getting into the industry, one thing I did was subscribe to all the trade magazines that I could find and read up on what the solar industry is and the difference between residential and commercial solar.
When you look at it from a workforce development perspective, you ask who it is that you’re serving and where the jobs are for those individuals. That’s something that a lot of people miss. Understanding the different nuances when you’re building out your program is very important.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There’s a good number of organizations that have been doing the work, and connecting with them will be your biggest tool and your biggest resource.
For organizations like GRID Alternatives, we look at ourselves as complementary to our partners. We ask how we can work together to impact local communities and create a clean energy workforce that’s representative of everyone.
Kristin Hayes: I have time for one last substantive question for you. You mentioned the importance of metrics of success. I’m not sure if that was the phrase you used, but that’s how I interpreted it. You guys are keen to make sure that what you’re doing is working, and you’re looking for opportunities to measure that and make sure that you’re meeting your own benchmarks.
For people who are building these programs now, what kind of information should they be collecting? What should they be tracking in order to successfully evaluate new programs moving forward? Do you have any experience that you can share on that piece?
Adewale OgunBadejo: In terms of metrics, some of the things that we think about are the number of participants entering our program, the number of individuals completing our program, and then the number of individuals that we’re moving into employment opportunities. Those are the three key metrics.
Also, we look at where the individuals are coming from. Where are the communities? What does our enrollment look like geographically? What communities are you reaching into? Is it representative of the individuals you’re trying to serve, and is it going to help diversify the industry? Those are important on that side. I would also look at some of the socioeconomics; there are people who specialize in that stuff and do all the Geographic Information Systems mapping to figure these things out.
There’s also the side of looking at the wraparound supportive services—seeing how many of the individuals you were serving needed financial literacy, access to healthcare, mental health services, substance abuse services, or whatever the case so that you can see where you need to build capacity, whether that’s human capacity or financial capacity. By capturing the metrics, you’ll understand that, and then you’ll equally understand whether you’re running an impactful program.
Kristin Hayes: That speaks to your point that it’s going to take everyone and a diverse workforce to make this happen on the scale and in the timeframe that it’s called for at the moment. Looking hard at how to get the most people involved by providing them with a comprehensive set of services is a good flag. I’m definitely going to give that some thought.
This has been great. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today, and I definitely encourage folks to check out GRID Alternatives and some of the references that you mentioned. I want to give you a chance to close, as we always do, with our Top of the Stack, where you’re welcome to make a recommendation for any other good content you think our listeners might be interested in. It can be on this topic, or it can be on anything of interest. So, Adewale, what’s on the top of your stack?
Adewale OgunBadejo: I will keep it consistent. Right now, I’m reading a report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, and it’s really an alliance report between them and the National Council for Workforce Education. It’s called Cultivating a Diverse and Skilled Talent Pipeline for the Equitable Transition. It’s a helpful piece in understanding the current landscape and seeing what the needs are.
The other piece I would recommend is the annual National Solar Jobs Census, produced by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council. The last report that was done was in 2021. It was done in 2022, but it was for 2021, so the 2022 report should be coming out sometime around June or July. It’s a really good read, especially if you’re trying to figure out where the needs are for the workforce.
Kristin Hayes: Fantastic. Thank you again. It’s been great to talk with you, and we look forward to hearing more about your efforts moving forward.
Adewale OgunBadejo: Thank you, Kristin. It’s been a pleasure.
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