Lining Up Line Workers



Three electrical utilities' planning keeps them out in front of their labor needs

By William Atkinson May 29, 2013
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Stories about shortages of computer programmers and health care workers are common in virtually all media these days. However, shortages in other industries exist—many of which are rarely, if ever, mentioned in the mainstream media.

One industry that is experiencing worker shortages in several technical jobs is the electric-utility industry. Some particularly hard-to-fill positions include distribution (local line) and transmission (long-distance high-power line) line workers, as well as generation plant engineers and technicians—especially those capable of operating nuclear power plants. Technical workers in the specialized field of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, along with specialists in rolling out “smart grid” technologies, are in short supply, too.

Some industries experience worker shortages in certain parts of the country and surpluses in other parts; this is not the case with utilities.

“Shortages exist pretty much nationwide,” said Deborah White, vice president of human resources and administration at the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Power Association (APPA), which represents almost 2,000 municipal and other government-owned utilities in the U.S. Such shortages exist in urban, suburban and, especially, rural areas.

Backfilling Retirement Vacancies

Unlike some industries that are in strong growth modes and need more workers to meet increasing demand, the electric-utility industry is facing a different challenge: worker retirements. The electric-utility workforce is primarily composed of workers from the large Baby Boom generation, who entered the workforce decades ago. So as large numbers of these workers retire during the next 10 years, there will be a need to fill those vacancies with trained workers.

“There are more people retiring than there are new people to replace them,” observed APPA’s White.

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) bear this out. The BLS projects that demand for workers in the electric-utility industry will actually decrease by 8.9 percent between 2010 and 2020. Demand for some occupations in the industry will drop by less but will still decrease. For example, demand in the Installation, Maintenance and Repair category (which includes line workers) is projected to decrease by 4.1 percent. Demand for production workers (which includes generating plants) is projected to decrease by 5.5 percent.

Still, a 2012Center for Energy Workforce Developmentreport noted that:

The average age of utility industry employees is 50.

Sixty-two percent of utility industry workers will have the option of retiring in the next decade.

Between 2015 and 2020, 34,000 new workers will be required just to maintain (not expand) the existing infrastructure.

Not only are there fewer people in the current generation than there were in the Baby Boom Generation, but, with so many other more well-publicized career options available today, younger workers are being attracted to a plethora of jobs outside of the utility industry.

“Demand for additional workers isn’t increasing,” said Allison Honeycutt, workforce strategy director at Duke Energy, in Charlotte, N.C., which is the largest U.S. utility and the largest publicly traded utility in the world. “In fact, as a result of advances in energy efficiency, there is less need to build more plants. As a result, we expect our workforce to be fairly flat for a while. These days, it’s more of an issue of backfilling those who are retiring.”

“We have an aging workforce and have had very little turnover,” said Maria Smedley, vice president of human resources at the Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporation and Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., in Little Rock. The AECC is a generation and transmission cooperative utility as well as a statewide association that provides services to the member electric cooperatives in the state. “People have traditionally worked for us for a lifetime—sometimes as long as 40 years. However, a large group of these people are eligible for retirement.”

Andrew Bouldin, workforce strategies team leader for the Southern Company (made up of Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power ),agreed. “Right now, what we see is natural attrition; more of a need for replacement, not increased need. Years ago we weren’t in a hiring mode because we generally had enough workers. These days, though, as many workers are retiring we are recruiting.”

Recruiting Strategies

HR practitioners in the utility companies that are having the most success keeping up with demand as workers retire emphasize that, while implementing specific tactical programs is critical, planning ahead is even more important. All three of the HR executives interviewed said their utilities foresaw this disconcerting trend a few years ago and began introducing programs to get ahead of the curve.

“We have been working on this issue for about seven years,” said Duke’s Honeycutt. “As a result, we are in pretty good shape in most areas. In most cases we have enough line workers. However, we do need to focus more attention on attracting line workers in some of our more rural areas. We are also in pretty good shape with engineers.”

Even so, the utility does have spots where it needs to focus more intensely on attracting technical workers with two-year degrees. “In terms of plant operations and dispatch people, because of the shift nature of these jobs, we need to do a little bit more in this area,” she said.

“Southern Company has seen for some time that there are workforce issues,” said Bouldin. “As a result, over the last seven years, we have implemented different plans and strategies to ensure that we do have a qualified pipeline of candidates.”

These utilities and others have introduced several programs in recent years to keep the employment ranks full.

For example, many utilities work with local universities and community colleges to set up and even fund special programs to train students to fill line worker and other technical positions.

“We have a lot of programs going on, including a lot of relationships with colleges and technical schools,” said Honeycutt. “These cover a lot of different areas, including some nuclear training programs.”

Southern Company has an internal workforce development council with representatives from each of the operating companies. “This group works together to share best practices and implement programs at technical colleges,” said Bouldin. “We also work at the high school level for career awareness.”

“We partner with colleges and universities in the region, limiting ourselves to regions in and around Arkansas, where it’s more likely that, when students graduate, they will want to stay in the area to work,” said the AECC’s Smedley.

In 2004 the AECC began a high-voltage line worker technology technical certification program in partnership with the Arkansas State University-Newport campus. To date, 138 students have received certificates. The majority of them are now employed by co-op members throughout the state. There is a challenge, though: Once the students obtain their certificates, some other utilities that aren’t part of the association have snatched them up, according to Smedley.

Many utilities have introduced intern programs, so that when students graduate and are deluged with job offers, they are more likely to remain with the utilities where they interned.

“We have a very robust intern program,” said Smedley. “Every summer we have about 30 interns working for us in our power plants, at our substations, in transmission, in our engineering group and in our IT department. Many of these students end up working for us.”

Southern Company also has a large co-op program and internship program for engineers. “We have approximately 300 co-ops working for us each year and around 150 interns,” said Bouldin. “We use these programs as a pipeline into full-time career opportunities with us.”

Although many utilities concentrate on getting technical workers from local community colleges, others recruit from what can be considered the largest technical training program in the U.S.—the military.

“We have a very robust military recruiting program, which includes a national outreach,” said Bouldin. In fact, the utility’s workforce is composed of about 11 percent veterans or reservists, and the company is currently recruiting about 12 percent new veterans and reservists each year. While some employers have found it challenging to gain access to military personnel for jobs, Southern Company has not.

“We don’t find it difficult to recruit military applicants because we have put a lot of effort into this over the years,” said Bouldin. “At the local level we partner with targeted military bases. We participate in more than 30 military recruiting events, including career fairs, and are engaged in other activities in coordination with their transition offices to make sure that transitioning personnel are aware of career opportunities at Southern Company.”

One program the utility is particularly proud of is Troops to Energy Jobs. “We are a founding partner for this program, which helps link transitioning military personnel to jobs in the utility industry,” he said.

Retention Strategies

Recruiting workers for technical jobs is a challenge, in general, but finding technically skilled people to work in nuclear power plants is even more challenging. Here, many forward-thinking utilities are targeting an even more specific source: the Navy.

“We have had long-standing success hiring nuclear technicians from the Navy,” said Duke’s Honeycutt. “This is a fantastic talent source for us. If you look around our nuclear facilities, you will see the Navy well represented.”

Recruiting is important, but retaining the workers already hired is critical to success. If employees begin working at a company and decide to move on, this puts even more pressure on recruiters.

“Since we work so hard to get people in the first place, we work equally hard to keep them,” said the AECC’s Smedley. “We offer a comprehensive benefits package, and we spend a lot of resources investing in professional development for our people.”

“One thing applicants find attractive in working at Duke is that we can offer a lot of stability in employment, which is especially important in today’s economy,” said Honeycutt. “We are also so large that people can move up in the organization without having to move from one organization to another, and people find that very appealing.”

Utilities that haven’t been as diligent in planning ahead need to try to keep preretirees around for as long as possible by offering incentive packages to them to shift to semiretirement, rather than full retirement.

“A lot of utilities are implementing the concept of phased retirement, where people who are ready to retire continue to work part time for a few more years,” said APPA’s White.

A final step in keeping up with employment demand for utilities is to monitor the success of the programs being introduced.

“Measuring the success of our programs is a moving target,” said Bouldin. “We look at the effectiveness of each activity and program in terms of what qualified candidates they produce and how we can replicate this.”

William Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Carterville, Ill.

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