Veterans Come Home to Clean Slates and Clean Jobs

When Stephanie Kline returned from her deployment as a member of the United States Marine Corps, she was stunned.

She, along with 200,000 service members in the next five years, faced the reality of unemployment.

“It is terrifying. You don’t know where you’re going to have a job, how you’re going to get a job, what you’re going to do,” Kline said.

The transition from active duty to civilian life is not always welcoming, but the solar energy industry is working towards inclusion.

Pilot programs like Solar Ready Vets are working to train veterans in this industry during deployment. This would allow returning service members to join companies like Strata Solar as soon as they return home. This partnership produces mutual benefit—as veterans receive a smoother transition, the clean energy industry will continue to expand.

March 25, 2010 - Florida Power & Light Company's DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, a 25-MW solar power plant featuring high efficiency SunPower solar panels mounted on the SunPowerAE T0 Tracker. (Photo by SunPower Corporation)
March 25, 2010 – Florida Power & Light Company’s DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center, a 25-MW solar power plant featuring high efficiency SunPower solar panels mounted on the SunPowerAE T0 Tracker. (Photo by SunPower Corporation)

Why do veterans have trouble finding work upon returning home?

Veterans return home with a unique skillset for the workforce that is not always utilized.

Maria Barker, Director of Human Resources at Strata Solar, sees these fears on the company’s side of the interaction. The mindset of returning veterans are “Nobody wants to hire me, they want to pay me minimum wage, or they just think I’m a killer,” Barker explained. She said companies don’t realize veterans can actually be strong leaders.

Kimberly Williams, Executive Director for North Carolina for Military Employment (NC4ME), agreed with Barker.

“One percent of the nation’s population is in the military, and the other 99 percent of the population don’t understand what they do when they’re in the military,” Williams said.

This misunderstanding on both sides is preventing many of this nation’s veterans from attaining employment.

Why would veterans be interested in working for a solar energy company?

Energy is a huge part of the day-to-day operations in the military. Kline learned first-hand that you can’t do anything without it. Veterans come home from deployment and realize the catastrophes that could have been avoided by solving energy problems.

Veterans start to question if every spill, leak, fire, or shortage was necessary. Could they have been avoided by paying more attention to energy? Everyone comes home with at least one way to finish the sentence, “Energy is something I might be interested in because…” Kline explained.

When they are connected to solar energy through an employment program, the connection lasts.

“When you can find a job and you can tap into your skill set, you get to work on a team made up of primarily veterans, and you can demonstrate your value in a company in a very tangible way, that becomes a huge part of having a meaningful relationship and create that retention in the workforce,” Kline said.

Strata Solar’s Maria Barker promises veterans that they will not be confined to fieldwork.

“I think the initial response is ‘will I just be in the field?’ But we have vets in the office, in our HR department, in our legal department, on our leadership team. You can wear multiple hats like everyone else does in our organization,” Barker said.

Barker proposed that the most important thing for veterans to realize is that in the solar industry “They can actually come out and have a true purpose. And that makes them truly proud.”

What companies are out there to connect veterans with clean energy jobs?

North Carolina for Military Employment (NC4ME) was started to get veterans employed both on the state level and on the national level. Williams says that there will be 78,000 transitioning service members in the next three years.

NC4ME is in place to solve two problems: “Big companies understand the value of hiring veterans, but they don’t know how to connect to a service member,” said Williams. “The bigger problem is that 75% of these transitioning service members are going to work for small- or medium-sized business, and those are the people who don’t understand the value of hiring veterans.”

Williams and NC4ME work to solve these problems by bringing the companies like Strata Solar to the actual veterans. This program’s connection process has a 50% success rate.

“As an employer, for every two people I interview I am going to hire one. That just blows me away,” Williams said.

Since its kickoff, NC4ME has placed over 500 service members with jobs. Then it is up to the individual solar companies to continue the success.

Why is the solar energy industry recruiting veterans for work?

Maria Barker realized that Strata Solar was missing a big skillset when building their solar farms. She turned to veterans when she was in need of leadership to fill this gap.

“They are hard workers, that goes without saying. They are passionate, they are great leaders, you put a challenge in front of them and they are not going to fail. They are going to motivate their team,” Barker said. “They have taught us how to be a better team member, and then helped us to realize how to come together as a team.”

As a veteran, Stephanie Kline couldn’t agree more. “We make phenomenal business sense. The major thing that we get out of the military is that we are trained to learn in a specific way. We are very tactical. We can transfer that to any type of technical skill, and make that process work.”

To Williams, there is no reason not to hire veterans. “Service men stay on their jobs twice as long as their peers that don’t have military experience,” Williams said.

Are other clean energy industries also looking to hire veterans?

Currently, no. “The timing was really right for solar, but there is no reason why other companies cant kick-start this,” said Kline. “Clean energy is a great opportunity for veterans. It is a great matchup of skills, of interests, of the ability to withstand the elements.”

What is the best way to grow the employment of veterans in this industry?

“It takes the military to be very interested in these issues, it takes the transitioning service members to want more options, it takes companies within the community to say ‘We want to hire vets, we know we can hire vets, we need help doing that’…We need that pipeline,” said Kline of the Department of Energy.

Barker of Strata Solar added that “It is a matter of trusting that mutual relationship of back and forth, giving them the skills that they need, opening up the door to opportunity, while also giving them back the proper feedback of an employer because they need to know that you’re listening to them and you are there for them.”

“They just need to believe that you believe in them,” Barker said.




A Day in the Life: A Veteran Employed at Strata Solar

Strata Solar is a solar provider committed to clean energy and workforce development. The company has reinvented the hiring process by targeting a workforce they believe to have the strongest technical and leadership skills. They have turned to veterans.

Harrell Watts is the Senior Human Resources Recruiter at Strata Solar, and a veteran himself. Below is some information Watts shared about his role in the clean energy industry.

Date Created: 2014:05:05 Photographer: Dennis Schroeder Photographer Title: N REL Photographer Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL Source: NREL City: Alamosa State/Province: Colorado Country: United Stated of America Restricted Use: NO
Date Created: 2014:05:05; Photographer: Dennis Schroeder; Photographer Title: NREL; Photographer; Credit: Dennis Schroeder / NREL; Source: NREL; City: Alamosa; State/Province: Colorado; Country: United Stated of America; Restricted Use: NO

Where and when did you serve?

I served during the Vietnam era. I went into the United States Marine Corps in 1972 and got out in early 1976.

Upon returning home, did you know where you wanted to work?

Yes, when I first entered the Marine Corps I was technically a college drop out. I had promised my mother that I would eventually finish school, so my first priority upon getting out of the Marine Corps was to return to Central Michigan University and complete my degree.

How easy was it for you to find a job as a veteran? Did you sell yourself as a veteran or as a college graduate?

I was actually recruited out of college for a job, so finding a job was not too difficult for me. I went into sales, actually. My degree was in Speech Pathology. Back in those days we had a major and a minor, and my minor was in Education. So I am a teacher, heavily into the sciences. Also I was a speech pathologist, but I never actually went into that line of work. I was more focused on the jobs in sales right after college.

How and when did you find out about Strata Solar?

I found out about Strata Solar around this time last year. They were having a job fair in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and it was rather interesting how I found out about it. I used to go to the library to do research. Interestingly enough it was mostly on being green. There was a young man who came into the library on the day I was in there, and he said that this company named Strata Solar was looking for people. He said they were going to have a job fair over at the Holiday Inn the following day, and he was just letting people know.

At the time I wasn’t really looking for a job, but I thought, “well if it’s a solar company, and it’s a green company, then I would like to find out what they’re all about.” So I just went to the job fair.

What roles have you played at Strata Solar?

I have played the role of a Corporate Recruiter. But that role in and of itself has actually developed. I was one of the people that went to the job fairs. So in the fall we went to a few of them. What we found in our travels was that there were times that we wished we had more background information about the areas that we were going to, in order to conduct the job fairs.

So they asked me if I would go out and look at the area, look at the hotels in the area, look at venues for job fairs, and things of that nature. I started doing that and it evolved. So now I still that, but I also do “et. all” work. Which means whatever my boss needs me to do, I’m there.

 What are some examples of your “et. all” work at Strata Solar?

For example, I just did a project for Strata Solar Construction Employees, where I found out who all of the people in the company are and where they’re located and put it all in a spreadsheet. I’ve also written a code of ethics. It has not been taken up by the company just yet, but they’re still looking at the one I wrote.

What is your favorite thing about you role in the company?

Strata is a growing company. They are in the position right now to expand, and we are expanding very rapidly. In doing so, we are coming up with a number of different processes to help the company grow.

We used to refer military background them as SOP’s, or Standard Operating Procedures. Strata is at a position right now where they growing so rapidly, that a number of SOP’s are not in place. So we are helping to place them down in the HR department, and put together a lot of processes to help the company and the workforce grow.

Why are people with a military background a logical choice for Strata Solar when hiring?

I think the most important thing is that the average military individual is very disciplined. They also understand what is referred to as a chain of command. In doing so, it makes it easier for a company to instruct these guys on what to do out on the field or in the office. We have a protocol that is usually followed, and they need to follow this protocol and processes in order to make something work.

When you are hiring military personnel, what role are they coming in to fill?

Well we are actually hiring for all lines. We target a lot of military personnel for the outside fieldwork. For example, a job like a construction manager, because most of the people coming out of the military that we target have the experience of managing other individuals. When you need to build a solar farm, you have to have guys who understand how to manage people out in the field.

Are these commitments long-term or short-term?

These are long-term commitments.

Why do you enjoy working for Strata Solar?

Strata as a company is an excellent company to work for. I say that because they really care about their employees. They are working very hard to try to make a good life for their employees, in terms of benefits and salaries and things in that nature. But they are also getting to that point where they are looking to their employees at people, rather than numbers that are just out there

Why do you think other veterans enjoy working for Strata Solar?

When you take the military into account, a lot of these guys do all the right things. But in the military you’re always looking to get some type of advancement. That is what Strata is also doing. They are taking people, for example, who come in as a construction lead or a foreman, and then they are moving them up to the next levels, like site superintendents and construction managers. I think that that is going to not only help the company grow, but it will solidify the company with a lot of good people who feel like there is some loyalty coming from the company, and being military in their background, they are going to give that loyalty back.