From pv magazine USA.
Kenneth Wells, chief executive of LA-based residential solar installer O&M Solar Services, grew up in Compton and has lived a rather different life to many of his PV peers.
â€śStart with my background,â€ť he told pv magazine: â€śA single-parent household; gangs; went to prison in eleventh grade; six years in the criminal system â€“ itâ€™s not a reform system with [an] initiative to reform, just being housed for the duration of your sentence. What do you expect from that young man?â€ť
Wells said he was lucky enough to have worked with Homeboy Industries, an organization helping recently-incarcerated people re-enter the community with gainful skills. Homeboy works with Grid Alternatives â€“ and that organization helped get Wells the training and hours he needed to become a solar installer. He worked at a â€śmom and popsâ€ť solar installer and other places before he landed at Sunrun and eventually became a construction manager.
Eight years on from prison, Wells was certified with the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners and making $80,000 a year. Today, he runs his own solar company, but the path was filled with structural barriers for a young Black man from Southern Los Angeles.
Uneven playing field
â€śEmployers do background checks, and no one is hiring an ex-felon,â€ť said Wells. â€śThat alone is enough to discourage someone from applying to jobs.â€ť Wells had to start his solar career at temp agencies and small installers because â€śnine times out of ten they donâ€™t screen, but nine times out of ten they donâ€™t pay either â€“ or you donâ€™t have benefits.â€ť He was forced to go through temp agencies â€śgetting hired through the temp agency and working at the same company that denied you, while getting paid $14 per hour instead of $20 per hour.â€ť
Adewale OgunBadejo, workforce development manager at Grid Alternatives of Greater Los Angeles, said Wells was forced to go â€śa secondary wayâ€ť â€“ getting paid 25% less â€“ â€śplus, he has different healthcare and heâ€™s working in a staffing agency.â€ť
The installer spent inordinate amounts of time on public transport, said OgunBadejo, because â€śthere are no solar training programs south of the 10 Freeway in cities like Compton or areas like Watts, which are largely African-American. His commute ended up being two or three hours per trip. Also, he could not get the financing he needed to provide for his clients [as an option for them to purchase solar] because of his past, though his company was revenue positive. This created a major challenge when it came to clients who wanted solar but needed a financing or lease option.â€ť
Wells the CEO said: â€śWho knows where we would have been, had we gotten that financing?â€ť
Grid Alternativesâ€™ OgunBadejo, who was speaking in a webinar held by management consultancy Global Leadership Associates (GLA), said: â€śThe solution is not just helping Ken. Itâ€™s not a program to get him a bus pass to travel to training, itâ€™s getting him a program in his community. California leads the nation with clean energy jobs and yet in our African-American and minority community, we are asking for a training program to come to these communities â€¦ We need to do something different.â€ť
OgunBadejo has been with Grid Alternatives for ten years and heâ€™s known and worked with Wells for eight. The organization has helped 5,500 residents with training and seen 570 trainees reach gainful employment in solar-related industries since 2012. Grid is making job training accessible to the under-served in Watts, Compton and South Central Los Angeles.
Addressing systemic racism
â€śNo matter how well-meaning or well-intended the person may be thatâ€™s a part of the system, if the system itself is designed on inequitable principles, then it canâ€™t do anything but produce systemic racism,â€ť said Saun Hough, vocational services administrator at community non-profit group Shields for Families, who was speaking on the same GLA webinar as OgunBadejo. â€śWeâ€™re in this movement where the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery has sparked a national, even a worldwide awakening, to systemic racism.â€ť
OgunBadejo added: â€śSystemic racism is as ingrained into the history of America as is the countryâ€™s national pastime â€“ baseball.â€ť
Back to solar systems
Wellsâ€™ solar firm handles what he called â€śorphan systems,â€ť a growing segment of the solar market which includes:
The CEO says heâ€™s getting â€śmore and more callsâ€ť for his solar roof services and his business also handles third-party installation work from companies such as Semper Solaris and Maxgen Commercial.
Having climbed the ladder, Wells said he wants â€śto be a stakeholder and make decisions to steer the industry.â€ť He said he would like to build a competitive brand like Sunrun, but with the core values of a Grid Alternatives entity and a â€śfocus on workforce development, and including people most impacted by environmental issues.â€ť
He concluded: â€śIâ€™ve been the poster-child of what is possible if the individual is given the right opportunity and [the] right assistance.â€ť
Grid Alternatives was founded in 2001 with a simple idea: Free, clean electricity from the sun available to all. The aim is to make solar technology practical and accessible for low-income communities while providing pathways to clean energy jobs. Learn more about partnering with GA here. Support GA here.