Ask Conitsha Barnes if the energy sector is a good place for a person of color to build a career, and she’ll tell you: “It’s a good place for anybody who’s interested in impacting people’s lives to make a career.”
Barnes is an energy policy management director for Duke Energy in North Carolina. She’s also the Southeast regional director for the American Association of Blacks in Energy (AABE) and the former president of AABE’s North Carolina chapter.
Barnes started her career nearly 25 years ago as a customer service specialist for Duke Power Co.
“That entry-level role allowed me to understand and appreciate how our customers are the foundation for what we do,” she said. “I hadn’t planned on a career in energy. I was a recent college graduate and a new mom. I took a role that allowed me to work a flexible schedule and provide for my family.”
As she rose through the ranks, she has continued to appreciate the solid start working in a call center gave her. “I don't have a technical background – I was a political science major – so it’s been both a challenge and an opportunity to learn about this industry.”
Barnes loves learning. After earning her undergraduate degree from N.C. State University, she is close to completing studies toward an MBA from the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. Throughout her career, she’s taken every opportunity to soak up knowledge.
Her advice to people just starting their careers? “Embrace being a student of the business.”
“At Duke Energy, I’ve built a phenomenal network of colleagues across multiple states where Duke Energy has customers,” she said. “AABE has allowed me to develop a phenomenal network across the country. My AABE membership has given me a deeper understanding of how other companies facing similar challenges are working to solve them.”
AABE’s reach is broad. The group advocates for under-represented racial and ethnic groups.
“For nearly 50 years, our organization has been the voice for the aspirations and vulnerabilities of the Black community and other minority communities in the energy sector,” said AABE President Ralph Cleveland, a mechanical engineer by training. “We want to ensure a healthy ecosystem for all communities.”
Cleveland said Duke Energy has long been a partner with AABE, which has 1,400 members in 36 chapters.
Duke Energy is a presenting sponsor of AABE’s 2023 National Conference and supports another signature AABE event – the Energy Policy Summit held in Washington, D.C., every winter.
Washington-based AABE and Duke Energy have a similar focus on diversity and inclusion. “We’re both looking at how to serve communities that have historically been disadvantaged,” Barnes said.
Alex Glenn, executive vice president and CEO for Duke Energy Florida and the Midwest, is an executive sponsor of AABE.
“AABE’s scholarships for STEM and other energy-related fields,” he said, “help identify future talent in communities where students may not know the utility industry offers great career opportunities.”
Since the company serves customers in seven states, urban and rural areas from Florida to the Carolinas to the Midwest, Glenn said, “Hiring talent who represent the customers we serve is critical to our near- and long-term success.”
“AABE is working to ensure that Blacks are fully represented in all aspects of the industry, such as renewables. We need to create pathways for more diversity in the newer technology areas,” Cleveland said. “And this is not diversity for diversity’s sake. We need as much talent in this industry as we can find. This is an industry where you're going to be challenged, do meaningful work, and have an impact. It’s a terrific place to be.”
When Duke Energy employees are involved in AABE, Glenn said, “It helps us build deeper relationships in the communities we serve.”
He has a ready example. Three Florida employees – Malcolm Barnes, Mikle Gordon and Melvin Philpot – founded the Youth Energy Academy in 2010 because they wanted to introduce career options to students from low-income neighborhoods throughout Florida. All three had grown up in low-income communities themselves.
The Florida chapter of AABE helped make their idea a reality. The program for middle and high school students is held every summer in two-day sessions.
“While most people associate utilities with linemen, this program focuses on all the types of employees we need – engineers, accountants, IT experts, meteorologists,” Glenn said. “The Youth Academy exposes students in underserved communities to opportunities … for high-paying, quality-of-life-changing jobs.”
The Duke Energy Foundation is the primary sponsor of the Florida Youth Energy Academy, whose success has been replicated by the company in North Carolina. And in 2019, the company and Polk State College in Winter Haven, Fla., founded an energy academy to prepare college students for energy jobs.
The Youth Energy Academy has served about 2,000 students in Florida and North Carolina who have gone on to colleges including Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and N.C. Agriculture and Technical State University.
Duke Energy is building a workforce that reflects its communities. Employees’ various backgrounds and perspectives help the company be more innovative and thoughtful in creating solutions and delivering affordable, reliable and clean energy to customers.
Workplace diversity is one thing that has kept Conitsha Barnes at Duke Energy.
“The collaborative environment has been key,” she said. “I work with a phenomenal group of colleagues that has never failed to help me. We’re fortunate to work in an environment that builds people up.”
Three questions for Conitsha Barnes
Why should young people choose energy as a career?
Because they’ll be given the opportunity to significantly impact the lives of customers, our communities and the economy. You can impact a lot of people when you work in the energy business.
What advice do you have for people of color interested in the energy sector?
I always encourage individual job seekers of all races and ethnicities to talk to people in the sector, and I encourage professionals to make themselves available. I also tell students about the range of opportunities. There are many jobs – good jobs –that don’t require a college degree. You can come in with a high school degree and build a career that allows you to take good care of a family.
What have you learned during your career?
There’s always something new to learn in this industry that continues to evolve. I tell young people: Never get comfortable. Never think: Hey, I’ve got this. I’ve also learned about the value of diversity. The more diverse the people are around the table, the better product we’re able to produce. Having a diverse workforce means our work is likely to resonate with all the communities and people we serve.
Interested in a job in the energy industry? Check out Duke Energy careers.