JUICE: Energy Diversity

20 Oct 2016

When California Current, previously called CA Energy Circuit, launched in 2003 a big concern of our small operation was workplace diversity. Being owned by two women negated the traditional male dominance issue, but being an all-white duo was a concern.

While slogging up the steep business learning curve, we hired two men to work for us as correspondents in the Southland. We knew of their previous reporting work, but had not met either of them in person. Only months later while trying to ensure our publication was inclusive, we happily discovered that one of our two ace reporters was African American.

Whether a business is small or large, workplace diversity is and should be a huge concern given our multicultural state and nation, more so with our shifting demographics and the rapidly changing multi-billion dollar energy sector.

A national report came out last week that seeks to push up the number of non-white employees in the energy sector. The opportunity is there because of the transformation of the energy industry with the growth of disruptive technologies, increased solar energy and other distributed generation, and the graying of the workforce.

“With the right emphasis, training, and preparation, the prospects for growth in employment among African Americans and Latinos in the energy industry are good,” states the report, 21st Century Innovations in Energy: An Equity Framework, by the National Urban League.

Over the next decade, about 40 percent of the current workforce at electric and natural gas utilities is set to retire. High retirement levels combined with transitioning to cleaner and renewable energy could create “immense” employment and economic opportunities for African Americans and other minorities, the report adds.

There are about 1 million direct and indirect jobs in the energy infrastructure, transmission, storage and distribution sectors. The solar industry is said to employ 200,000 workers. Employment is expected to rise in these areas over the next 20 years.

Last year, African Americans represented 12.5 percent of the U.S. workforce, Hispanics 15.8 percent and Asians 5.7 percent, according to the Department of Labor. But these groups are under-represented in the country’s energy industry.

According to the report, Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveal that of the “estimated 661,000 persons employed in the electric power sector, 7.6 percent, or 50,236, are African American, 9.22 percent, or 60,815, are Latino, and 3.8 percent, or 25,118, Asian.

In the solar energy business, African Americans represent the smallest proportion of any racial group, according to the 2015 National Solar Jobs Census from the Solar Foundation.

But, California’s energy regulators and utilities are often rightly applauded for their workplace diversity commitment, including in outreach, training and hiring. This week’s report highlights the Golden State’s utility supplier diversity, along with that of Maryland.

Of the state’s private and public utilities, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power had the highest level of employee diversity. As of September 2016, it was 15.21 percent African American, 33.03 percent Hispanic, and 11 percent Asian.

Last year, the Los Angeles metropolitan region population was 7.7 percent Black, 44.8 percent Hispanic and 16.7 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The private utility with the highest level of diversity is San Diego Gas & Electric. Its workplace includes 8 percent African Americans, 24 percent Hispanics and 11 percent Asians. San Diego County’s population is 5.6 percent Black, 33.4 percent Hispanic and 12 percent Asian as of July 2015, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

Overall diversity numbers at Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are well above the U.S. workforce average, at 41.7 percent and 58 percent respectively, compared to 25.7 percent nationally. But, the two utilities need to push up their numbers to better match regional demographics.

PG&E’s 2015 workforce included 6.3 percent African Americans, 17 percent Hispanics and 14.7 percent Asians, according to the utility’s website. The greater San Francisco Bay Area, only a part of PG&E’s territory is, for example, 6.2 percent Black, 24 percent Hispanic and 24.1 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Southern California Edison, which parses its numbers differently from PG&E, reported its top 1,000 workers included 4 percent African Americans, 14 percent Hispanics and 17 percent Asians.

The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District workplace last year closely reflected regional demographics. Its employees included 8 percent African Americans, 12 percent Hispanics and 13 percent Asians. Sacramento and El Dorado Counties are 7 percent African American, 17 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Asian.

Diversity shortcomings at many California utilities, however, are largely a result of larger societal issues.

“It’s good to have diversity plans in place but you really have to look at the pipeline,” said Don Cravins National Urban Leagues senior vice president for policy. He said the limited hiring pool is principally caused by the lack of educational opportunities, including in the areas of calculus, physics and computer science for African American students in particular. He urged support of high school and middle school programs in these areas.

PG&E, Edison, SDG&E, LADWP and SMUD provide academic support in key areas, from science to engineering. That includes giving scholarships to college and high school students, funding key curriculum in colleges and high schools and providing training academies with a focus on disadvantaged communities.

In contrast, in the solar energy business, African Americans represent the smallest proportion of any racial group, at 5.2 percent of the workforce, according to the 2015 National Solar Jobs Census from the Solar Foundation.

The highlighted utilities’ commitment to diversity is commendable. They should continue to lead the way to ensure robust workplace diversity, including via support for academic programs extending to middle school, while giving equal focus to environmental justice. Furthermore, solar and traditional power generation firms and other energy businesses in and outside California need to step up to the diversity and racial justice plate, more so given unprecedented opportunities in this changing industry. Then this sector will fully reflect our rich multicultural community, or as the Urban League report notes, avoid “accelerating the energy haves and have nots.”

Elizabeth McCarthy

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