When military veterans search for jobs, they often want more than a paycheck. Many say they look for rewarding work and a team of dedicated people focused on a common mission.
With the war in Iraq officially over and the American presence in Afghanistan winding down, many veterans are finding new careers and that strong sense of purpose in the growing clean-tech economy.
Some are helping build the massive solar farms sprouting up in California’s deserts. A black POW-MIA flag flies every day at BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar plant under construction in the Mojave Desert, courtesy of a project superintendent who was a Marine in Vietnam.
About 10 percent of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla Motors’ global workforce of 3,000 employees are veterans or military hires.
The company has built partnerships with several military placement organizations, including Hire America’s Heroes, which connects American companies to top military talent, and Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has been providing services to veterans for more than 40 years.
“Veterans are the perfect fit for Tesla because many of them gained incredibly advanced technical, electrical and mechanical skills in the service that are directly applicable to manufacturing electric vehicles,” said Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks.
“Veterans are taught to be leaders within the context of a cooperative team, and that is exactly how Tesla works.”
The Department of Defense is investing in clean technology, including advanced biofuels, electric vehicles, solar-powered batteries and bases that generate their own electricity. The support of clean energy is directly tied to saving lives, says Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has pointed out that for every 50 convoys of gasoline brought into a war zone, a Marine is killed or wounded.
About 20 percent of the roughly 800 workers currently constructing First Solar’s 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., are veterans. “We’ve got a lot of guys from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’ve taken on leadership roles,” said Richard D’Amato, who oversees construction at Topaz, which First Solar says will produce enough electricity to power 160,000 homes.
D’Amato, who was a Marine during the Vietnam War era, says veterans bring something special to First Solar – intense pride and esprit de corps. “The way to get off of foreign oil is through wind and solar. Our guys believe in it,” he said.
For veterans such as Michael Eyman, who ended a 17-year Navy career in 2009, clean tech became a perfect fit indeed.
“I started thinking about clean energy when I was out with Operation Southern Watch in the late 1990s,” said Eyman, referring to the U.S. patrols of the “no-fly” zone in Iraq. “When you are in the Middle East as a military person, you start to wonder: ‘Why am I here? Why is the United States so interested in this region?’ And energy quickly becomes one of the issues.”
In March, he sent his resume to SunPower, Silicon Valley’s leading solar manufacturer.
“I am looking for the same kind of connection to mission and vision that I enjoyed in my 17 years in the Navy,” Eymon wrote. “Alternative energy has precisely that kind of higher purpose.”
Marty Neese, a West Point grad who is SunPower’s chief operating officer, was impressed by Eyman’s passion and drive. In July, Eyman began working for SunPower as a product manager based in Austin, Texas.