“The biggest challenge being a minority working in the energy field is really feeling like you don’t belong.”
That's J’Tia Hart, a nuclear engineer at the Department of Energy, and her resume is as storied as one might expect from someone who has dedicated her work and studies to the field. Since 2006, she has engrossed herself in nuclear research, achieving her Ph.D in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She also happened to model and participated in the reality television show "Survivor."
She's also African-American and a woman in a field dominated by white males.
Hart, along with a handful of others, spoke last month at the launch of Department of Energy’s latest initiative under the Obama administration. Under the program Girls of Energy, the DOE wants to introduce the energy field to young women of color under the age of 10. This is the latest of programs from the DOE aimed at opening doors for minorities and women to work in the engineering and energy field.
“Energy is important to the country, the world. It’s probably one of the key industries that will impact us from an economic development,” said La Doris Harris, the director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity at the DOE. And a diverse workforce is key to a healthy sector, she said.
For utilities, this problem is especially poignant. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up only 21% of the electric utility workforce, while minorities (African-American, Hispanic and Asian) only compose 19.9%.
Efforts by the DOE and power sector companies can improve diversity in the industry workforce. But for those efforts to bear fruit, introduction to the STEM fields must start at an early age, officials say, especially in the case of women.
“Going to high-school to get girls interested in STEM is a little too late,” Harris said. “We’ve become what we pay attention to ... we want them to see the women scientists and engineers and be inspired by that.”
Why is it hard for minorities and women to advance in the energy field?
The answer to that question is, at best, exceedingly complex. A slew of socio-economic factors play into the composition of the energy workforce, and even when women gain a STEM education, the lack of an inclusive work environment can deter them from entering the power sector.
“I think people who are the mainstream in the energy field have a certain kinship that sometimes doesn’t cross gender and color and cultural barriers,” Hart told Utility Dive.
Few people like to be the trailblazer, said Jennifer Kim, who heads the employee experience and development team at Lever, a hiring platform based in California.
“Not everyone is comfortable or able to be that first woman in a team of all men or black person or Hispanic in a team of white men,” Kim said. “It’s incredibly difficult to hire for women and minorities.”
Finding an easy or quick solution is not the answer, Kim said, because of the complexity of diversifying an office.
“It’s an area you want to navigate carefully, so trying to do things in a way that is quick is not going to work.”
One such fix for the energy sector as a whole is DOE’s Minorities in Energy initiative. Launched in 2013, the program aims to engage “underrepresented communities” and collect stakeholders to address the challenges many face in the sector.
While the initiative’s future is uncertain under incoming President Donald Trump’s administration, it has ignited a discussion over the future of the energy workforce. And as cutting edge technology proliferates, especially within the realm of distributed energy resources, a younger workforce is necessary to keep up with the evolving power sector.
The not-so-quick fix
But beyond the DOE’s initiatives, how can utilities—and the energy sector—become more inclusive?
Both Hart and Kim said ignoring the applicant’s holistic background can hurt the company’s aim to reel in a diverse workforce.
“I think it’s a conversation that should be had in the open,” Kim said. “There’s a demand for it. The executives want diversity but they have to be the supporters and not force anything through…[the] key to approaching the conversation is to try to help people open their eyes.”
Recruiting and hiring is an expensive and time-consuming process, Kim said. Yet companies can manage the expense by first tackling issues within the existing workforce.
“We really recommend that companies start inward first, really looking for ways to improve the culture of the work environment before they go out recruiting,” Kim said.
With that in mind, Hart suggested leaders could start by example.
“What I think would help with [the lack of diversity] is a diversity inclusion training,” Hart said. “[But] also just leadership leading the way and not just really sticking to the stereotype. You never know who [someone] is going to be and what they could be working on.”
Involving the minorities and women within the discussions taking place can also shape the workforce culture. On the nitty-gritty side of recruitment, DOE’s Harris recommended crafting partnerships with programs like the Girls of Energy initiative to result in a less homogenous office.
In thinking beyond an internal change, Lever’s Kim suggested companies move away from referrals.
“One of the worse ways is to recruit through employees,” Kim said. Employees generally prefer people that look and think in similar ways, furthering a homogenous work culture.
What to think about in the hiring office
As utilities grapple with a changing business model, recruiting people of various backgrounds, gender and race can help the sector transition. But what should utility execs think about once a woman or minority makes it to the final round of interviews?
In Hart’s eyes, it’s keeping in mind the strength and preparedness these candidates possess as a result of an already arduous career climb.
“Believe me if you are a minority in that field, you have to be passionate about what you do,” Hart said. “If this person is in front of you and they are qualified, this is a person that’s probably more qualified than someone who is not a minority because that person already has that uphill battle and that extra step."