Kaetu Weh, left, worked as an intern last summer with Building Envelope Materials as part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center's internship program.
Kaetu Weh, left, worked as an intern last summer with Building Envelope Materials as part of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center's internship program. Credit: Massachusetts Clean Energy Center / Courtesy

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A Massachusetts agency is expanding a pilot program to recruit students of color for internships with clean energy companies with the goal of laying the groundwork for more diversity and equity within the sector.

“This is a great industry with really great paying jobs,” said Tamika Jacques, senior program director for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which runs the program. “We want to make sure that it’s inclusive of all races, no matter where you live or your upbringing.”

Massachusetts has long been considered a leader in solar energy policies and adoption, and was ranked the top state for energy efficiency by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy for nine straight years. Now the state is poised to be the first to deploy large-scale offshore wind with the development of the Cape Wind project. 

As these sectors continue to grow, state officials and environmental justice advocates have emphasized the importance of making sure people of color and low-income populations share in the economic gains the industries promise to deliver. 

“Getting folks in on the ground level so they are able to rise as the industry grows is of the utmost importance,” said Susannah Hatch, clean energy coalition director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “There’s enormous opportunity.”

How the program has evolved

One of the ways the clean energy center is trying to tackle this problem is by adjusting its flagship clean energy internship program, which launched in 2011, to more actively recruit and engage students of color. 

The central program works by matching potential interns with employers through an online database. Interested students submit their information and resumes to the system, then Massachusetts clean energy and water innovation companies can search for and hire interns from this pool. Businesses that hire interns through the program are reimbursed $16 per hour for the students’ work. Many employers pay interns more than the subsidy rate, and they are not allowed to pay less than $15 per hour. Each company can hire two interns through the program; if they want a third, they must choose an applicant who attends a community college. 

In its first 10 years, the initiative matched 4,400 students with internships; 880 of these students ended up with part-time or full-time jobs at their host companies. From the beginning, however, the program seemed to attract a narrow demographic, Jacques said. 

“When the program first started, it was heavily White males from private universities,” she said. 

The program became more inclusive over time. To further increase diversity and equity, the agency two years ago created a provision that required 60 internships to go to students from, or companies in, so-called “gateway cities,” a group of 26 midsize cities, many with high populations of people of color, facing stubborn economic challenges. 

Then, in 2021, the clean energy center added a new section, known as the Targeted Internship Program, dedicated to recruiting and mentoring interns of color and students from other underrepresented backgrounds. This initiative placed 38 students with employers around the state. The agency hopes last year’s performance was just a start. 

“We’re trying again to really grow those numbers,” Jaques said. “We’re trying to make it more innovative and making sure we really are tapping underrepresented communities all across Massachusetts.”

The pilot program contracted with four partner organizations that took on the work of seeking out candidates, getting them into the system, and helping make matches between students and employers. Partners reached out to their existing professional networks to publicize opportunities and recruit students. They even delved into the database to seek out matches that students and employers might have missed or didn’t have time to dig for. 

“We were almost like a contract [human resources] staffing entity with a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens on it,” said Kerry Bowie, president and founder of Browning the Green Space, one of the partner groups. “That’s a tremendous asset.”

‘There’s a lot of work we need to do’

For students, one of the most valuable aspects of the internship program was the exposure to new options they may never have considered before, said Mindy Wright, founder of partner organization Upward Project, a nonprofit focused on helping low-income, first-generation college students navigate college and career development. 

“The number one thing for all of our kids is, ‘wow, I did not know this industry is as big as it is,’” Wright said. “They definitely come out of it thinking differently.”

Once the internships began, the partner groups provided various training and mentoring support to the students. Students were invited to webinars on topics like building a personal brand and best practices for engaging with employers. Partners started a Slack channel for interns to connect and converse about their experiences. Browning the Green Space, a Boston-based initiative that aims to increase diversity and equity in the clean energy sector, paired interns with established professionals for one-on-one mentorship.

Abode Energy Management, an efficiency services company based in Concord, brought on an intern from the targeted program last summer and went on to hire the student to a full-time position in the fall. The company had worked with interns through the clean energy center in the past and saw the pilot program as a chance to expand its pool of candidates and take steps toward diversifying its staff, said Ryan Keeth, energy conservation program specialist at the company and himself an alumnus of the clean energy internship initiative. 

“We’re 90% White men,” Keeth said. “There’s a lot of work we need to do to diversify our workforce and lead by example.”

The clean energy center is now in the process of assessing the proposals from partner organizations for this summer’s program. It aims to place as many as 60 students in internships this year. The goal, Bowie said, is to help students of color start to build the sort of organic professional connections many White students already take for granted. 

“We’re starting to build sort of an ecosystem and a network,” he said. “You have a sort of cohort of people to talk to.”

Sarah Shemkus

Sarah is a longtime journalist who covers business, technology, sustainability, and the places they all meet. She has covered the workings of small-town government in New Hampshire, the doings of alleged swindlers and con men, and the minutiae of local food systems. Her work has appeared in the Guardian, the Boston Globe, TheAtlantic.com, Slate, and other publications. Based in Gloucester, Sarah covers the state of Massachusetts.