Military personnel train at a Solar Ready Vets program in Colorado. Credit: Department of Energy

North Carolina-based Strata Solar is diving into Virginia’s blossoming utility-scale market with a significant hiring goal and a twist: they’re striving to fill about 125 of the 400 job openings with military veterans.

One year after the first group of veterans completed the Department of Energy’s Solar Ready Vets program, Strata Solar sees Virginia – with a high population of retired veterans and several major military installations – as a strong environment for recruitment.

While Strata is the latest developer to enter the Virginia market, its hiring goal will likely move it to the top of solar companies with full-time employees there.

Brian O’Hara, a senior vice president at Strata, said the company sees a “huge opportunity” in Virginia because as solar costs continue to decline, companies such as Amazon and Apple increasingly are demanding cleaner energy sources for data centers.

Analysts estimate roughly 70 percent of U.S. internet traffic comes through data centers in northern Virginia, which is part of Dominion Virginia Power’s service territory.

For each of four 20 megawatt projects Strata Solar is building for Dominion, it needs about 100 full-time workers. The job to fill those positions as soon as possible falls to Strata’s head recruiter, Maria Barker.

As a member of a military family herself, Barker finds ways to relate prospective workers’ myriad military backgrounds and connect their skills in the field with jobs at Strata’s project sites.

“Some (veterans) are extremely nervous when they start their interviews because they have not been in (the civilian) world for the last 10-20 years, so I try to make our talks as casual as possible,” Barker said. “Once I do that and all the anxiety is out of the door; then it’s about finding what works for them and us.”

Barker, who spent part of this week recruiting at Fort Lee south of Richmond, said many veterans, once grounded in Strata’s policies and practices, can grow into leadership roles.

Strata Solar is so hungry for qualified prospects that Barker and the five colleagues on her human resources team try to identify prospects months before they retire from the military and then help prepare them for jobs she thinks they might enjoy.

“We’ve even written letters to commanders to transition out” some veterans “because we know we could employ them and they’ve checked all the boxes internally to move on,” Barker said.

In addition to speaking at numerous conferences and ongoing recruiting at community colleges and state universities in the Southeast, Barker tries to stay plugged in to each of the five major Armed Forces – Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy – as well as the seven branches of the National Guard’s reserves.

“We’ve dedicated ourselves to working with vets since 2013,” Barker said. “Each year we grow a little bit more to better understand what we need to do to serve them in their first civilian job. As a young company, they’ve been helping us and we are helping them.”

Thus far, Strata Solar has hired about 150 veterans for its operations throughout North Carolina and other Southeast states it’s expanding into. Overall it employs 300 workers full time and can have as many as 1,500 part-timers working at project sites.

One path into Strata Solar is illustrated by Harrell Watts, who was hired three years ago.

Watts worked on the security teams of presidents Nixon and Ford in the 1970s. He subsequently held jobs as a middle school science teacher, then as high school football coach while selling office equipment, among other positions. He first grew curious about solar at a job fair in 2014 where he met Barker.

Barker allowed Watts to observe the company’s work at its Warsaw solar farm in Dublin County, North Carolina. “When a position opened up that made sense for him, we hired him,” Barker said.

Watts began work on numerous electrical wiring tasks. From there he saw a future for himself in various safety and training roles and has since grown into his current recruiting role as a Safety Training Supervisor.

Watts said finding one’s way into a young solar company is not without “growing pains,” both for veterans and the company. “We’re still learning. We’re evolving,” he said.

“There are challenges and difficulties at times,” Watts added, especially for some veterans who delegated a lot during their military deployments but need to acclimate working under someone who lacks significant management experience.

All that said, according to Barker, “the more vets we can hire the better we all are.”

Jim Pierobon, a policy, marketing and social media strategist, was a founding contributor to Southeast Energy News. He passed away after a long battle with pancreatic cancer in 2018.